HADDONFIELD, N.J. — A transsexual man has sued the drug-treatment center where he worked, claiming it discriminated against him when it fired him from a job that only a man is allowed to do: watching men urinate.
Experts believe El'Jai Devoureau's case is the first in the U.S. where a transgender employee has claimed an employer discriminated based on birth gender.
"As our society becomes appropriately more tolerant, I hope that there are more brave people that are willing to endure the collateral problems by drawing a line in the sand and saying they won't stand for discrimination," said Jim Walden, a lawyer representing Devoureau.
The question at the heart of a case is whether someone who is living as a man and recognized by the government as a man is one when it comes to employment.
Devoureau, 39, was born with female genitalia but says in his legal complaint that he always considered himself male.
Five years ago, he began counseling and male hormone treatments. In 2009, he had sex-reassignment surgery. His driver's license, birth certificate and Social Security cards have all been reissued to reflect that he's a man.
He says managers at Urban Treatment Centers in Camden believed he was a man when the drug treatment center hired him in June to monitor men as they gave urine samples for drug tests. Because of its nature, the job was open only to men – a prerequisite his lawyer says was appropriate.
According to his lawsuit, Devoureau went through one day of training. When he reported to work the next day, he said, a manager asked if he was male. He said he was, and the manager then asked if he had undergone any surgeries, according to the lawsuit. After he refused to answer, the lawsuit says, Devoureau was fired.
"I just want everybody to know that I don't want this to happen to anyone else," he told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. "I want my job back. I can do my job."
Devoureau, who lives in Deptford, filed a complaint through the state Division on Civil Rights in January and his lawsuit in state court on Friday. The case was first reported by The New York Times.
The company would not comment. Its lawyer, Michael Sweeney, did not immediately return a call.
In a response to the civil rights complaint, the company maintained that it was appropriate to remove Devoureau from the job because only men were allowed to hold the position.
Devoureau is now working in a warehouse, but he says he wants to return to the other job, too, so he can support his 18-year-old son.
New Jersey is one of a dozen states in the nation that bans discrimination based on transgender status, a law that was adopted in 2006 and took effect in 2007.
Jillian Todd Weiss, a professor of law and society at New Jersey's Ramapo College who also consults with employees about workplaces transgender issues, said it appears to be a simple case under the state's laws and judicial precedent.
"I would have absolutely told them to retain the employee and think about how to address transphobia and heterosexism in their environment. You don't ask someone: 'What do your genitalia look like?'" she said. "That was a very poor choice on the employer's part."