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By Bob Vitale
Savanna DeLong lost three jobs after she began coming out as a transgender woman in late 2010.
But only in Columbus, where a 2008 ordinance added gender identity to local anti-discrimination laws, was she able to take a former employer to court.
Franklin County Municipal Court Judge H. William Pollitt Jr., levied a $1,000 fine yesterday against Columbus Hospitality Management for retaliating against DeLong and denying her work at the Capital Club, a private Downtown club.
It’s the first-ever case brought by city prosecutors against a Columbus business for discriminating against someone who’s transgender.
“If you engage in illegal discrimination, we will file charges,” said City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr.
The company denied wrongdoing but pleaded no contest in court. President Charles Lagarce said fighting the charges would have been too costly, and he described the plea and acceptance of the fine as “the best business decision for us.”
DeLong worked at the Capital Club for 12 years as a licensed massage therapist, bartender and restaurant server and said she never received bad feedback from superiors.
She said that changed after she emailed her supervisor in December 2010 to tell her she had just legally changed her name to Savanna. DeLong said she began taking hormones in 2006 but had not told anyone for four years that she was transgender.
“In January , I got a call. They wanted to meet with me. They said some things, rather insultingly.”
The things DeLong describes — referring to her gender identity as an “epiphany,” questioning her presence in locker rooms, telling her she’d make club members uncomfortable — were a shock, she said.
“I was a dedicated employee. I went above and beyond whatever they asked me to do.”
Capital Club managers promised to give her more hours working in the bar, she said, but they never called again.
Lagarce said DeLong was a contract employee, not a full-timer, and she lost work at a time when Columbus Hospitality Management was shifting hours away from all contract employees.
Questions were raised about which locker room she would walk through to get to the massage room, he acknowledged, because her gender hadn’t legally been changed. He denied that anyone ever told DeLong that club members would feel uncomfortable around her.
“We’re in the service business,” he said. “We are as diverse as any business … not only with our workforce but with our guests.”
DeLong already had lost her health coverage when Columbus Hospitality Management took over the club and changed people’s terms of employment. She lost her income as well when the Capital Club and catering jobs in Bexley and Reynoldsburg stopped giving her work.
She’s now in bankruptcy, but a job at Giant Eagle also provides health coverage for her prescriptions and visits to the doctor.
A friend of a friend suggested that DeLong file a complaint with the Columbus Community Relations Commission, a city-sanctioned body that investigates bias claims in employment, housing and public accommodation. Pfeiffer’s office took an interest, too, and filed charges against Columbus Hospitality Management. The company pleaded no contest, a legal move that acknowledges all the facts of the case but doesn’t admit guilt.
Chief Prosecutor Lara Baker-Morrish said DeLong’s status as a contractor prevented the city from fully pursuing a discrimination case against the company. Columbus Hospitality Management was fined for retaliating against DeLong by denying her work after she filed a federal equal-opportunity complaint.
That complaint was dismissed because federal anti-discrimination laws don’t cover LGBT Americans. Nor does state law in Ohio and local laws in Bexley and Reynoldsburg, where DeLong also lost work with catering businesses. One of those companies moved her into the kitchen before not hiring her at all, she said.
Without the 2008 addition of gender identity to Columbus anti-discrimination laws, though, DeLong would have had no standing to pursue her case, Baker-Morrish said.
Lagarce said Columbus Hospitality Management no longer manages the Capital Club, located in the Huntington Center at 41 S. High St. It does runs four central Ohio hotels, the Arena Grand Movie Theatre, the Buckeye Hall of Fame Grill and a Max & Erma’s at Grandview Yard, and other businesses in Columbus, Grandview Heights, Lewis Center, Wilmington and West Chester.
In court yesterday, DeLong read a statement about the impact the experience has had on her life. (See her entire statement below.)
“The day I left your offices, I had a breakdown, had to pull off the highway to throw up,” she said. “Then came the next wave — fear. How am I going to survive, already hanging by a thread?”
The $1,000 fine against her former employer will go to the city, not to DeLong. But she said she has gained something from her involvement in Columbus’ first transgender discrimination case.
“It gave me a lot more self-confidence. It made me realize Columbus is a pretty good place,” she told Outlook. “I feel like I contributed something to the community.”
Savanna DeLong’s statement in court
In writing this I began by asking myself, What did I lose?
Other than loss of income. I can say this caused me hurt and pain. Physical pain coming from the shock of being openly fired for being who I am, no other reason! The day I left your offices, I had a breakdown, had to pull off the highway to throw up. Then try to compose myself and go back to the rest of my day. It was not a good outcome.
Then came the next wave … fear. How am I going to survive, already hanging by a thread? Can I make it on the streets? Can I live in my car? Give up what little I had? Pets, possessions. My family had already kicked me to the curb, then people like you just piled on.
The day I walked into your offices for a meeting, your mind was already made up. You actually insulted me at the start. Telling me you had heard I had an “epiphany” and discovered I am really a woman … congratulations. Yes, that’s right. I just woke up one morning and decided hey, I’ll be a woman now.
At that very moment I realized you hadn’t a clue about transgender people and [were] pretty much ignorant to our situation. I knew what was coming next. And I am deeply offended. You didn’t even give me a chance. Shows a total lack of integrity and unprofessionalism on your part.
If it makes you feel better, it was not just you. Other work was lost from places in cities like Bexley, Reynoldsburg, they know who they are. But unlike the great city of Columbus, they have no civil-rights laws to protect us there. Which leads me to believe that our fine city is way ahead in promoting rights for all of its citizens. Thank you, mayor and City Council for all your forethought on these issues. And to any and all that helped in getting this ordinance passed.
Our vice president, Joe Biden, has stated that transgender discrimination is “the civil rights issue of our times.” In his words I find some solace and a sense of acceptance. And hope that someday, it will really get better.
Today, I feel like I have done what I can to advance the rights of the LGBT community. For that I am thankful.
Just a tiny battle in the fight for all our rights. I hope with this win, it can make life easier for transgender people now and in the future.