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The U.S. Justice Department on Monday sued Southeastern Oklahoma State University, charging that it denied tenure to Rachel Tudor, effectively firing her in 2011, over her identity as a transgender woman.

The suit is a strong federal endorsement of the idea that transgender status can be a cause for illegal discrimination.

Tudor was hired in 2004, at the time identifying as a man. In 2007, she started to present herself as a woman. The Justice Department lawsuit outlines a series of issues that point to discrimination against her in a tenure bid. According to the suit:

  • A vice president of the university asked a human resources employee whether Tudor could be fired because her gender identity offended his religious beliefs. (The human resources official answered in the negative, but the vice president played a role in Tudor's tenure review.)
  • A dean, in a meeting with Tudor about her tenure bid, repeatedly referred to her as "him" despite being told of her status and despite her being in the room.
  • A tenure review committee in her department (English) and her chair recommended her for tenure and found she met all the university's criteria.
  • The dean and vice president referenced above reversed that decision without offering an explanation.
  • Both the dean and the vice president refused to meet with Tudor to discuss her case so she could appeal to the president for tenure. In refusing to meet her, they broke with practice at the university of holding such meetings, which have resulted in non-transgender people winning tenure.

It is quite rare for tenure disputes to result in a statement by the U.S. attorney general, but this one did on Monday. Said Attorney General Eric Holder: “We will not allow unfair biases and unjust prejudices to prevent transgender Americans from reaching their full potential as workers and as citizens."

Sean Burrage, president of the university, issued this statement Monday: "Southeastern Oklahoma State University is committed to diversity and equal employment opportunities. The university is confident in its legal position and its adherence to all applicable employment laws; however, due to the litigation, Southeastern has been advised by the attorney general’s office not to discuss any specifics concerning this matter. We will allow the legal system to run its course, while we direct our focus and energy on our top priority, that of educating our students.’’

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center on Transgender Equality, issued a statement on the suit in which she said that "it's still shocking that the leadership of a state university would, as this suit alleges, engage in such an elaborate scheme to push out a faculty member solely because she is transgender. And it is heartening that the Justice Department is willing to take on a state school over this."

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