Sometimes when people talk about discrimination, they conjure images of one dramatic and distinct moment – the employer who without warning outs an employee as gay and mercilessly fires them; the shop owner who kicks a transgender person out of the store, telling them to never come back; the landlord who learns a tenant has a same-sex partner and immediately evicts the couple.
But more often than not, discrimination is much more insidious, a series of moments and encounters stacked upon other moments and encounters until the discrimination is so undeniable, so overt, so intolerable that the victim hardly can comprehend how it escalated without them being fully aware.
That’s what happened to Penelope Hudson, a lesbian woman in Louisville, Kentucky who was fired from her job after more than fifteen years there, following years of homophobia and gender stereotyping. Incidences multiplied, and each time Penelope thought they would perhaps subside, or that her skin was thick enough to handle the abuse, or that she would be able to resist the unfair treatment.
But no human should have to endure such psychological pain – and last month, Penelope Hudson filed a lawsuit against her employer, Park Community Credit Union, with the help of Fauver Law Office in Louisville. In early June, the case was moved to federal court.
“I’m filing this case because I want this company to know that this is not OK,” Penelope said. “I never want any other LGBT person to be treated the way I was treated.”
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Among Penelope’s coworkers, it was no secret that she was gay, although most of the credit union’s membership did not know. Among this same group of coworkers, it was also no secret that Penelope’s supervisor did not approve of lesbian women.
Much of the early discrimination Penelope dealt with from her supervisor centered on her physical appearance. At the time, she sported a short, spiky blond haircut. She wore dress shirts, slacks, dress shoes, and minimal to no makeup.
Penelope had been working hard to get promoted to be a service representative at the credit union, a step up from her position at the time. The barrier was that her supervisor was told by Senior Management to tell her that she didn’t present with a professional appearance, and until that changed, she wouldn’t be promoted. Sometimes Penelope was even told that her hair was “god-awful” and “unprofessional.” Penelope heard this again and again at work, until eventually, her supervisor told her she needed to change her appearance.
“I’m filing this case because I want this company to know that this is not OK,” Penelope said. “I never want any other LGBT person to be treated the way I was treated.” – Penelope Hudson
In a conversation with her supervisor, she was told she did not look professional because of appearance. “I do dress professionally,” Penelope insisted, pointing out her business attire – the slacks, the button-up shirts, the shoes. Finally, she asked a question for clarification and said: “Do they think I look too butch?”
The answer was yes.
A short time after, Penelope changed her appearance and was promoted, demonstrating that the hold up was not due to her performance but just her appearance. “I continued to do my best work all the time hoping comments would stop being made and I would be respected for the job I did,” Penelope said. “And although the comments didn’t stop, it was hard for them to deny the good work I did.”
Despite the troubles, Penelope was eventually, at long last, promoted to a branch manager position – a position that oversaw a challenging branch staffed by struggling employees who were supposed to be terminated by the time Penelope took the lead. Two years later, she was demoted down to Assistant Branch Manager, with no reason given.
While a branch manager, at a work event at Churchill Downs, the famed horse racing stadium in Kentucky, Penelope was tasked with taking care of a few clients, guests of the credit union. One of the guests began flirting with her, coming onto her strong. When she complained to colleagues that she was being harassed, she was told that the guy was harmless. The client became more assertive, trying to kiss her and asking repeatedly for her phone number. Penelope finally said to the Vice President of Human Resources, who was also at the event, how uncomfortable she was. The VP responded flatly, “Well, if the gay thing doesn’t work out, you can also go the other way.”
Years later, Penelope and her girlfriend at the time were pursuing a fertility treatment, and in doing so needed to apply for time off from the Family Medical Leave Act. It was approved by her doctor, citing infertility, then by the credit union, but soon she received a call from her Human Resources asking what her medical diagnosis was.
“I don’t think that you’re allowed to ask me that,” Penelope explained.
The HR Reps demured until she added, “We need to make sure it’s not because you’re gay.”
“I was mortified and upset,” Penelope said, explaining that other co-workers were also dealing with family infertility issues and were not asked what their medical conditions were.
* * *
After many years at the company, Penelope was concerned that she still was not being promoted or advancing further in her career. She got upset at work, and when her supervisor probed for a reason why, she frustratedly said, “Well, it’s hard to be promoted when your executive supervisor hates you.”
The frankness launched a meeting with her Executive supervisor, who during the meeting offered – without context – “I don’t hate gay people,” bringing up Penelope’s sexual orientation without Penelope herself alluding to it or initiating that conversation.
“My niece was getting married – it wasn’t my niece, it was my ex-husband’s niece,” the supervisor continued, going off on a story about how her family members were concerned that she would be attending a wedding between two women. “The family was concerned that she was coming to the wedding because they knew she did not like gay people,” Penelope explained. “Her own family thought she hated gay people.”
Later, she was overseen by a new manager, who had previously worked under Penelope but was promoted, despite Penelope’s seniority in the position. The new manager was a religious woman who would often ask the staff to pray for high numbers and good business that month. When she would say this, the manager would look at Penelope and sneer, “Because you’re gay, you don’t believe in God.”
“I do believe in God,” Penelope later explained. “But I don’t think there needs to be a place for it at work.”
* * *
The conflicts continued to bubble up, and in the spring of 2016, she and two other credit union employees made a clerical mistake. One of the employees who had been at the credit union for three years was promoted shortly after the mistake. The second employee, who had been working for six months but was friends with the branch manager, saw no consequence. But Penelope was suspended.
“It became apparent that they did not want me to be there,” Penelope said, and she was right – in late September of 2016, she was fired, told by her supervisor that Penelope seemed really unhappy at the job, and that her unhappiness was showing through her performance.
When Penelope spoke up and explained that she met and exceeded her yearly goals , before the end of the third quarter, or that she received a positive “Clearly Outstanding” on her last review, her supervisor changed the subject. “It’s not that!,” she said. “It’s core values.”
Penelope left her job, stunned. “I was heartbroken when this happened,” she said. “I loved my job. I loved the members that I dealt with every day. But they fired me for being gay and derailed my career. They ruined my life, basically.”
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Since she worked at the credit union for so many years – a decade and a half – Penelope has really only worked just a few jobs in her life, deeply committed to them. As a military brat, she found the Armed Services intriguing and served several years in the Army before working another job for a short while and then landing at Park Community Credit Union.
“I put my heart and soul in that job,” she said.
Penelope has been grateful that her support in the local community has remained stronger than ever. Sometimes members of the credit union ask her how she is and why they don’t see her around at work. She is an active supporter of local LGBT organizations, including the Fairness Campaign, the Trans United group, the Derby City Bears, and the Derby City Sisters.
“When I lost my job, several people asked why, and I was so embarrassed that I didn’t tell them why,” Penelope said, echoing a sentiment many LGBT people experience upon facing harassment or discrimination. “The ones who did find out or the ones who I did share with told me, ‘Honey, you didn’t do anything wrong.'”
“When I lost my job, several people asked why, and I was so embarrassed that I didn’t tell them why. The ones who did find out or the ones who I did share with told me, ‘Honey, you didn’t do anything wrong.'” – Penelope Hudson
Penelope is also focused now on the lawsuit she is bringing with Fauver Law Office. “Each time I brushed up against my supervisors, I kept thinking it was a one-time incident, a one-time incident,” Penelope said. “But I realized after I was fired that these were not just one-time incidences. They all came together. I realized after I was fired that my supervisor hated lesbians, and that they were going to get rid of me. It’s honestly hard to believe sometimes. I’m recovering, and I’m getting my life back, but initially, they ruined me. They wanted me to feel worthless, like I couldn’t do anything. But that wasn’t the case – I was good at my job.”
Penelope and her lawyer Shannon Fauver, part of the legal team behind the landmark Supreme Court cases that brought down bans on marriage for same-sex couples in Kentucky and nationwide, are suing under the local Louisville fairness ordinance and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, citing gender stereotyping and sexual orientation discrimination. Increasingly, judges nationwide are coming to the consensus that the law’s prohibitions against discrimination based on sex also extend to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Kentucky is one of more than 30 states where LGBT people are not fully protected from discrimination. Penelope said that needs to change.
“I think that every state needs LGBT non-discrimination protections,” she said. “You shouldn’t be discriminated against because of who you are.”