A transgender woman working in the cafeteria of Baton Rouge’s downtown state courthouse said building managers wrongly denied her access to the women’s bathrooms, discriminating against her by restricting her access to those facilities.
Champagne Starr had worked at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse’s privately run cafeteria since January. Building manager Mike Whatley in March told Starr that women were complaining about her use of the bathroom and instructed her that she could no longer use the court’s restrooms for women.
For a brief time, Starr used a bathroom across the street. But, ultimately, she was given access to a private bathroom on a different floor.
But Starr felt that compromise, and the conversations that led up to it, still made her feel singled out. Transgender advocates both locally and nationally say employers should allow transgender people to use the restrooms associated with their gender identity, citing a recent ruling from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But courthouse officials said they felt legally obligated to restrict Starr’s bathroom access, noting that state law doesn’t provide protections for transgender people.
Whatley said he had received several complaints from both female employees and members of the public who were uncomfortable with Starr using the women’s restroom. He said he had to step in once a woman in the courthouse reported it to a Sheriff’s Office deputy working in the building.
The solution was to ask Starr what sex was listed on her driver’s license. When he found out she was identified as a man on the license, he told her that fact meant she couldn’t use the women’s restrooms in the building.
“I was putting us out on a limb if I hadn’t done that,” Whatley said, adding that he sought legal advice from city-parish and state officials. He declined to name those officials.
Starr dresses like a woman and identifies as a woman, but said her driver’s license still lists her as a man because the state won’t change it until she has a sex reassignment surgery. Transgender advocates note that a person’s gender identity does not have to correspond with their physical sex and people can identify as a different gender without ever planning to have surgery.
Starr has presented herself as a woman since 2012, but began transitioning about seven years ago when she started hormone therapy. Starr’s legal name is William Roundtree, though she says she’s submitted paperwork for a name change. She ran for Metro Council in District 6 against Donna Collins-Lewis in 2012, while transitioning, but before she identified as a woman.
Starr said she didn’t feel comfortable or safe using a men’s bathroom.
“I explained to them for me to go in a male restroom there are several risk factors,” she said. “I look female, so males will be offended by this, or I could be physically harmed or raped. There are so many security issues.”
Ultimately, the two agreed she would use the bathroom across the street at a Subway sandwich shop because the operator of the courthouse cafeteria is also the owner of the nearby sandwich franchise.
Whatley said the compromise was offered by Starr herself during their meeting. But Starr said it was Whatley who gave her the choice of either using the men’s restrooms or leaving the premises.
Ultimately, a private bathroom typically used by judicial commissioners was identified as a solution. Starr said the private bathroom wasn’t available until after a week. But Whatley said he made it available to her the next day.
Still, Starr said it is discriminatory for officials to limit her to the private bathroom. And she said it was an inappropriate for Whatley to ask her how her driver’s license identifies her sex, which she described as an indirect way of asking about her physical condition.
“If you’re going to ask me, you have to ask every person who works here,” Starr said.
Starr no longer works at the cafeteria. She was laid off this month by her employer, who leases the restaurant space at the courthouse.
Whatley said he tried to be extremely sensitive and respectful to Starr, a point that Starr doesn’t refute. Whatley said he thought that the private bathroom was a safe and considerate solution that mollified all the parties involved.
He made his decision based on research into the nascent legal territory about transgender people’s rights. Whatley cited state law outlining what is considered “discriminatory practice in connection with public accommodations.” The statute offers protections for people based on race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, disability or national origin, but not gender identity. The state law goes on further to clarify that homosexuality and “transsexualism” will not be included.
It’s for that very reason that Starr said she feels helpless. She noted that state law doesn’t protect her, and an effort to prevent discrimination at the city-parish level via the so-called f airness ordinance was rejected by the Metro Council last year.
“Louisiana has no rights. I have no rights,” she said. “When it comes to being gay, lesbian or transgender in this state, I can’t sue because technically there are no laws to protect me.”
State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, this session is pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would provide protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people in areas of jobs, housing and public accommodations. Previous efforts to pass similar legislation have repeatedly failed.
Ann McCrory, the court’s judicial administrator, applauded Whatley’s handling of the situation.
“He’s presented with a dilemma with a person whom other people feel is in the wrong bathroom, and he tries to get to the root of it by talking to her in a kind way,” McCrory said. “The conclusion that she is still male led him to say, ‘Well this is a woman’s bathroom.’ ”
Vincent Paolo Villano, a spokesman for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said preventing Starr from using the women’s bathroom seemed a violation of federal laws related to sexual and gender identity discrimination, a matter specifically dealt with in a recent ruling by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The commission ruled last month that the U.S. Army had erred when it restricted a transgender woman from using common female restroom facilities. That woman, Tamara Lusardi, was given access to a private bathroom. But on multiple occasions the bathroom was out of order, so she returned to the women’s facilities and was subsequently confronted for making other women uncomfortable.
In Lusardi’s case, she also had not undergone sexual reassignment surgery, but her legal documents recognized her as female.
The ruling stated that the employer cannot use the discomfort levels of other employees as an excuse to ostracize Lusardi.
“Allowing the preferences of co-workers to determine whether sex discrimination is valid reinforces the very stereotypes and prejudices that Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) is intended to overcome,” the ruling stated.
Matthew Patterson, a coordinator with statewide LGBT rights group Equality Louisiana, said restricting bathroom access for transgender people robs them of their dignity.
“To deny access to a restroom is a violation of human dignity,” Patterson said. “It’s monstrous to say you can’t use the restroom while you’re at work; it’s just not an acceptable thing to do.”