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Saks department store, Texasvia

Saks says it's legal to discriminate against trans employees

The American luxury store claims that transgender people are not protected by the Civil Rights Act

American luxury retailer Saks Fifth Avenue is under fire after attempting to legally discriminate against a transgender employee. Leyth O Jamal, a trans woman, worked at Saks in Texas until 2012, when she claims she was fired for expressing her gender identity in the workplace.

Jamal says that Saks bosses told her to behave and appear more like a man, which included wearing no make-up and less feminine clothing. She was also ordered to use the male toilets during her shifts. According to Law360, her employers told her that she needed to separate "her work life from her home life". Jamal also claims that a Saks employee called her a prostitute and threatened to physically hurt her. 

In December 2014, Jamal filed a discrimination lawsuit against Saks, claiming harrassment and bullying.

Saks responded by saying that it is legally entitled to discriminate against trans people, claiming that they are "not protected by Title VII" of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – which allows the department store to discriminate against Jamal as they see fit.

Throughout its legal filings, Saks repeatedly and deliberately misgenders Jamal, adding the word (sic) each time Jamal is referred to as a woman. Why do this in a legal document? Who knows. It only serves to highlight Saks' refusal to acknowledge Jamal's gender identity. Saks even claims that its own employee policy on LGBT equality does not apply to Jamal's case, as "employee handbooks are not contracts as a matter of law". 

The department store appears to be on shaky legal ground. Late last year, US attorney general Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would be amending the Civil Rights Act to protect trans people from discrimination. Two years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that Title VII outlaws discrimination against transgender employees.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is wiping Saks from its Corporate Equality Index, a league table of companies' approach to LGBT rights. Previously, it had scored 90%.

"Saks' arguments are hugely concerning to us," HRC director Deena Fidas said. "In its court filings, Saks attempts to secure a motion to dismiss Ms Jamal's allegations by simultaneously calling into question the validity of its own non-discrimination policy and the larger, crucial protections afforded by Title VII."

Even if Saks manages to get the lawsuit dismissed, the case is a PR disaster. Meanwhile, Saks' fiercest rival, Barneys, cast 17 transgender models in a Bruce Weber campaign last year. Americans, maybe it's time to switch which department store you shop at.