Vanessa Gilliam has long had dreams of working as a nurse, helping people who are sick and caring for people who need expert attention. “I like helping people, assisting people to help them live their lives longer and make more memories with their kids and grandkids,” Vanessa said. “I think that’s why we’re all put on this world.”
Her mother and sister are both registered nurses. “I always had an idea of being a nurse, but I guess I wasn’t 100% for sure until I started working in a hospital,” she said. “I knew then that this is what I was meant to do.”
That’s why Vanessa enrolled at the Galen College of Nursing in Louisville, Kentucky. She was engaged in her classes, working hard on her studies, and making friends in her program. Vanessa was steadily becoming more assured of herself. She had recently come to terms with being a transgender woman – living as female although she was born male – and with the greater confidence fueled by her successful studies, Vanessa came out at school, dressing as the gender with which she identified. She was ready to live the life she had always imagined for herself.
But during one of her first days of living openly at school as a woman, Vanessa was approached by school officials, who asked what Vanessa was doing. “I got a weird, awkward feeling,” Vanessa said. “She asked me to come into another room with her, and so I walked in and the first thing she said was that the reason they brought me in was my outfit. She said, ‘You’re a man dressed like a woman.’ I had to explain that I’m transgender – that I identify as a female.”
“You should be evaluated on your work – nothing else. If you’re at home with your family, your ethics are what’s important. Your integrity. Not what you wear or how you sound.”– Vanessa Gilliam
Vanessa was told that the faculty at school was disturbed that Vanessa used the restroom that matched her gender – and that they were also uncomfortable with the way Vanessa dressed. The college’s discrimination led to a months-long dispute with the school where Vanessa was simply trying to live her life and complete her studies. But the college created barrier after barrier.
Now, Vanessa and her attorneys – Shannon Fauver and Dawn Elliott at Fauver Law Office – have filed a legal case against the school, after weeks of discussions with the college to simply allow Vanessa to use the appropriate facilities. A decision from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission underscores that Vanessa should be able to do so, as the EEOC has determined that discrimination based on gender identity is covered under Title IX protections, which shield Americans from sex discrimination.
Beyond the legal case, Vanessa knows that she – and all LGBT people – do not have any statewide protections against discrimination in Kentucky. And nationwide, LGBT people are not federally protected by statute from discrimination in employment, housing and public spaces.
“A federal law would help,” Vanessa said about her situation. “A law would make things a lot easier – getting service, getting to use the right restroom. It would be a lot easier to say, ‘That’s my right.’ I would feel like I could finally live my life.”
Vanessa has always been taught that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be treated fairly and given a fair shot in the United States. “You should be evaluated on your work – nothing else,” she said. “If you’re at home with your family, your ethics are what’s important. Your integrity. Not what you wear or how you sound.”
She cares for and is raising her three children. “My kids are amazing,” she said, smiling. “The boys are hugely supportive. Since I told them I am transgender, they said they already knew. They said it’s not a big deal.”
Vanessa said that while she is willing to fight for her rights in Kentucky – and federally – it shouldn’t be every LGBT person’s individual responsibility to fight legal battles. The laws in the state and nationwide should be updated to ensure that one thing is crystal clear: All people must be treated equally, and discrimination is unacceptable.
“I think everyone should stand up for themselves – but I don’t think everyone should have to stand up for themselves,” she said. “Everyone should be able to have a normal life. All I wanted to do was go to nursing school and be a nurse and go to work and raise my kids and be a parent. And now, because of these lack of protections, it’s ten times the struggle. I shouldn’t have to struggle because of who I am.”