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Trans Navy veteran, 25-year employee of Vanderbilt Univ., sues over ‘egregious pattern of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation’

Vanderbilt University (Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Flickr)

A transgender U.S. Navy veteran who has worked at Vanderbilt University for 25 years filed a lawsuit Thursday against her employer over the “extensive, continuous, and egregious pattern of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against her” because of her gender identity.

Olivia Hill, of Davidson County, Tenn., claims in the suit that she was viciously mocked by her co-workers before and after she underwent gender confirmation surgery.

The complaint also notes the “stunning hypocrisy” shown by the university for violating its own “highly publicized” policies alleging support for LGBTQ employees and students.

In January 2018, after she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria — which is defined as a feeling of discomfort or distress resulting from an incongruence between a person’s sex assigned at birth and that person’s gender identity — Hill met with a counselor at the Vanderbilt Employee Assistance Program to develop a plan to begin living full-time as a woman.

Later that year, in mid-June, Hill notified school officials of her transition. All managers, supervisors, as well as all employees who reported to Hill, were subsequently informed.

According to the suit, in August she “learned that her direct supervisor, Tim Cook, had been discussing her transition with engineers and contractors with whom she works, and was using terrible slurs to describe her, such as ‘it,’ ‘trans freak,’ and “weirdo,’ among other names.”

She took the matter to Cook’s supervisor, who told her he would say something to him. She later found out that he never did speak with Cook because he said he “did not know how.”

Hill said that the situation got even harder then, with both supervisors and employees she managed began “harassing her, calling her names, and generally making the workplace hostile and uncomfortable for her” — to the point that she felt the need to postpone for nine months plans for the medically necessary gender-affirming surgeries she required.

The harassment continued even after she returned to work, on May 20, 2019.

“She was mocked by her superiors, immediately treated differently by both superiors and subordinates, avoided by co-workers who would not speak to her, and found that people would stop talking and leave when she walked into a room — none of which was addressed by her superiors,” the complaint alleges.

After following all proper “university channels,” ultimately her plea for help was ignored. She was placed on involuntary leave in December 2019, where she remains as of late September 2021, nearly two years later.

None of the harassers were punished and she was subjected to continued retaliation.

According to Rubenfeld Law, the Nashville-based law firm representing Hill, she is the first and only employee of Vanderbilt to transition while working there.

“Although it is clear Ms. Hill continues to love Vanderbilt, she was left with no option but to seek legal protection and restitution for all she has suffered and lost,” her attorney, Abby Rubenfeld, said in a statement.

“The way Olivia was treated violates federal and state law — and is consistent with Vanderbilt’s own policies and public presentation as allegedly being a model of LGBTQI tolerance and inclusion — is simply the height of hypocrisy as well as illegal under numerous laws and statutes cited in the lawsuit,” she added.

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