Mykel Mickens didn’t have any problems in his first few weeks of working for General Electric Appliances – he would go to work, put in his hours at the Appliance park, then come home to his family in the evening in Louisville, Kentucky. But that all changed when his supervisor and the rest of his colleagues learned that Mykel is transgender.
Suddenly, he was unable to use the restroom close to his work station, forced to use the women’s restroom further away from his work station, but then reprimanded when his restroom use would make him late returning from breaks. He was referred to repeatedly by the incorrect pronouns and his former name. He was asked inappropriate questions about his body. And he was disproportionately criticized and penalized by his supervisor, who did not reprimand his co-workers for similar infractions.
The harassment and discrimination lasted for more than two years – until the end of June 2016, when Mykel was fired, stemming from the negative treatment he had endured at work.
Now, Mykel is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by Shannon Fauver, one of the attorneys who successfully challenged Kentucky’s ban on marriage between same-sex couples all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the lawsuit, Mykel explains that GE discriminated against him because he is transgender, specifically suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. The lawsuit underlines that Mykel was treated unfairly explicitly because of his sex – and because he does not conform to the gender stereotype of what a person born female should look like and act like.
In December 2016, a federal judge refused to dismiss Mykel’s complaint, writing, “Given these allegations and drawing all inferences in Plaintiff’s favor, the Court finds that the complaint satisfies the pleading standards for race and gender discrimination/harassment claims. … [Furthermore,] Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a sex-stereotyping, gender discrimination case.”
Kentucky is one of 32 states where LGBT people are not fully protected from discrimination. By citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Mykel and his legal team are working to bring justice to others fired or harassed at work because of their gender identity – and in the process, they’re educating many about the challenges transgender people face.
As he awaits a formal order, Mykel shared his story with Freedom for All Americans to underline the injustice of facing discrimination simply because of who he is – plus looks ahead to why Kentucky should expand its non-discrimination protections to fully include members of the LGBT community.
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The discrimination and harassment that Mykel faced at work was brutal, dehumanizing him in a way that he did not think possible.
“It was bad,” he said. “I had this anxiety about using the bathroom – and now I have stomach problems from holding myself for so long, sometimes throughout the entire course of the eight or ten hours.”
At work Mykel and his colleagues were given just a few minutes of break time to use the restroom. So if needed to use it, he would have to essentially run from his work station to the women’s restroom he was designated permission for, far from his work station, despite a perfectly adequate men’s room located close by his work station. This both ignored his gender identity and treated him as an other, singling him out because he is transgender.
He would return late from his allotted break time, and over time he began to acquire points against him, reprimands, essentially, that amounted to absences or lateness. Prior to his transition, Mykel had a nearly perfect attendance and punctuality record.
Co-workers would intentionally use female pronouns and Mykel’s former name, and both co-workers and supervisors would ask invasive questions about the anatomy of Mykel’s body, spreading rumors and hurtful jokes. “I was often upset or angry or crying, and I would return home really defeated,” Mykel said. “I used to cry my wife crying. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I’m going to figure it out.”
“It was like coming to school and getting bullied every day. How many days can you come and stand up every single day?”
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Last June, it all reached a breaking point at GE.
In the middle of the month, Mykel’s supervisor called him into the office and let him know the company was letting him go because of attendance and tardiness issues. These issues, of course, stemmed from the restroom discrimination Mykel endured for more than a year.
Mykel was upset, but he decided to finish out the week at work, as GE allowed. A few days after that conversation, Mykel’s mother was at the hospital for surgery, and a few minutes before the end of his shift, he picked up his phone to call his wife, asking her to check on his mother.
“It was like coming to school and getting bullied every day. How many days can you come and stand up every single day?” – Mykel Mickens
“My boss got up behind me and said I needed to get off the phone,” Mykel said. The line he was working was running behind. Mykel put down the phone, but the supervisor brought Mykel into a private office and said he would need to leave immediately, fired.
“I said, ‘This isn’t a game – it’s not funny,'” Mykel recalled. “I told them they were picking on me and needed to stop.” Human resources and two representatives from the union dismissed him anyway.
Mykel left the company and was unemployed for several months. His time at GE, naturally, turned out far different from what he had hoped for.
“I could have retired from this company. I hoped to work there for a long time,” he said.
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For Mykel, all of his energy fighting this anti-LGBT discrimination stems from his love and commitment to his family.
He lives with Kenitha, his high school sweetheart, and their daughter. Mykel and Kenitha met when they were both young, through church. Kenitha sang in the choir, and both she and Mykel were children of preachers. “Ever since we were little, she’s been my everything, my best friend, my Number 1,” Mykel said. “She would go to war for me.”
Mykel and Kenitha have been through a lot together – including Mykel’s decision to transition – although the transition was far less frustrating than what they have had to endure in the past year. “I’ve been her husband since Day 1,” Mykel said. “I told her since we were kids that something’s wrong – that the only thing God forgot to give me was a boy’s body.”
“When this was the decision – that he needed to transition, it wasn’t a surprise,” Kenitha added. “I said, Cool, let’s go.”
The couple legally married in Kentucky on July 24, 2015 – a direct result of the work from their current lawyer, Shannon Fauver, and many others who worked for decades for the freedom to marry.
The frustrations at Mykel’s work were far worse.
“It really affected our home life,” Kenitha said. “I felt like I worked at General Electric – like I was an employee there, because everything was coming home every day. I would get upset at Mykel, but in reality there was no way he was not going to be affected by all of this. The way they treated Mykel just because he is transgender was a lot. If he was a non-transgender, straight, white male, they would have treated him perfectly fine.”
“People would think that it shouldn’t affect the family, but it does,” Mykel added. “I hated this situation, but I had to provide for my family. I used to say to our daughter that if you want food and you want gifts, Daddy has to go here. I’m a family man. GE was messing up my family life.”
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Beyond the immediate scope of the lawsuit, Mykel and his wife are eager to see the state of Kentucky more generally embrace LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections.
“It would mean everything to see comprehensive non-discrimination laws in Kentucky” Kenitha said. “We are part of this community, and discriminating against a community is not right. I feel like you break the law when you discriminate – but in Kentucky, there’s no law to break. If there were a law, people would be expected to respect everyone the same. Having that law would mean everything to us.”
“The way they treated Mykel just because he is transgender was a lot. If he was a non-transgender, straight, white male, they would have treated him perfectly fine.” – Kenitha Mickens
“Right now, I don’t even want to live in Kentucky,” Mykel said. “But I shouldn’t have to leave here. Something has got to change.”
Educating more people across Kentucky and throughout the country is also an important part of the work, Kenitha said.
“Mykel was born a different way – but people don’t fully get that,” she said. “When people learn Mykel is trans, it changes their perception. A lot of people did not know about Mykel being transgender, so when it came out on the news and they did know, they would tell him, “You’re not really a man” and their respect level has just dropped. So for me, we need to work on helping people better understand. I want people to see that it doesn’t matter.”
“Who someone loves, who they’re with, who they are, that should not affect the workplace,” she added. “It upset me because I know that Mykel works really hard, he’ll do anything for anybody. It was hard to see him go through that, and there was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t make anyone else not ignorant.”
It comes down to fighting for their family that has given Mykel and Kenitha the resolve to keep pushing forward in Mykel’s case and the broader push for greater understanding of transgender people.
“We tried to teach our daughter just to love – she’s very loving…everyone, everybody. We’re just a loving family,” Kenitha said. “I just wish that the world, that a lot of people would educate themselves. For a lot of people, Mykel’s situation shouldn’t matter to them. They don’t know, and it’s not a big deal, and it’s not the life they have lived. If people had more knowledge about transgender people, they would be able to relax and find the compassion they need. I wish people would educate themselves, and we’re ready to help them get started.”