Trans library worker files federal bias lawsuit
by Timothy Cwiek
Nov 05, 2009 | 4273 views | 2 2 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Although trans woman Bobbie E. Burnett wants to leave her job at the Free Library of Philadelphia as soon as possible, she won’t leave yet.

Burnett, describing her work environment as “hostile,” said she won’t leave until she receives legally enforceable assurances of adequate compensation for the discrimination she says she’s endured within the library system.

“I won’t leave without adequate compensation, either by settlement or trial,” Burnett told PGN. “I’ve given the best working years of my life to this place, and I’m not leaving without security that my golden years will be spent in health, and not in poverty.”

On Sept. 24, Burnett filed a federal anti-bias lawsuit, seeking a jury trial to determine her rightful compensation. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones.

Burnett said she had little choice but to file suit, noting that attempts to settle the dispute privately were unsuccessful. “In my opinion, the city didn’t negotiate in good faith to address my needs and to avoid a lawsuit.”

Library officials have not yet responded to Burnett’s allegations, according to court papers. Sandra A. Horrocks, a spokesperson for the Free Library, declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.

After the suit is served, the library has 20 days to respond.

Burnett, 53, has been employed as a library assistant at the Free Library since June 1991. Her annual salary is about $27,700, she said.

Problems for Burnett began in 2001, when she notified supervisors of her intent to transition to the female gender.

Since then, she’s been transferred to eight different library branches, denied the use of unisex staff restrooms, passed over for advancement and unfairly restricted in her interactions with patrons, the lawsuit alleges.

Library officials failed to take corrective measures to alleviate the problematic work environment, according to the lawsuit.

“Instead, management seems to accommodate some of Bobbie’s coworkers’ prejudices,” said Kristine W. Holt, an attorney for Burnett. “If Bobbie does something the least bit out of line, she’s penalized and disciplined. But management seems to accommodate the prejudices of her harassers.”

Slurs hurled at Burnett by some staffers include “freak,” “man in woman’s clothing” and “nigger,” according to the suit.

On one occasion, when Burnett expressed wishes for a nice weekend to a coworker, the employee responded with, “Burn in hell,” according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, some staffers have gone out of their way to avoid contact with Burnett, and they’ve avoided touching objects she might have touched, the suit alleges.

In January 2009, after investigating Burnett’s complaints, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations issued three probable-cause findings in her favor — stating she probably was discriminated against at the Free Library on at least three separate occasions.

But Burnett’s complaints to the commission resulted in additional retaliation against her at the Free Library, according to the lawsuit.

“We think there’s a correlation there,” Holt said. “It’s not through any fault of the commission. But nothing changed for Bobbie. To the contrary, things went downhill.”

Burnett suffers from clinical depression, allegedly due to her mistreatment at the Free Library, and she’s taken extended medical leaves to recover from the stress, according to the lawsuit.

In 2008, after being out on an approved sick leave, Burnett received a bad performance review because her absence allegedly affected the quality and quantity of her work, according to the lawsuit.

“Not only was Bobbie victimized, she was also penalized for taking time to recover from the victimization,” Holt added. “It was piling insult upon abuse.”

Burnett is seeking an undisclosed amount in punitive and compensatory damages. She’s particularly interested in ensuring that healthcare will be provided to her until she’s eligible for Medicare at age 65, she said.

Holt refuted claims by Burnett’s critics that she’s litigious.

“There’s been an ongoing desire on my client’s part to reach a settlement with city officials, but it just hasn’t happened,” Holt said. “I’ve been representing Bobbie administratively for roughly seven years. So it’s not like there’s been a rush to sue.”

Timothy Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
November 09, 2009
It's extremely disheartening to hear that the free library, an organization that should uphold the values of inclusivity, diversity, and equal access to information and service, did not effectively address the discriminatory behaviors directed at this staff member. I hope that this case will serve to create awareness, support, and the implementation of a no-tolerance policy for employees who engage in hostile and discriminatory behaviors against social and ethnic minorities.
November 05, 2009
My heart goes out to Bobbie. I was a victim of workplace bullying a few years back and it is a horrible experience for anyone! I can't imagine how awful it must be for someone who is gay or transgendered as well. The most important thing, I found, is to take care of yourself and keep a good perspective on things. Mean people may demand and get your attention, but they certainly don't deserve it. I wish only the best for Bobbie and thank her for shining a light on an awful, awful secret of many workplaces.