By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Sorin Thomas, a transgender person who identifies as gender neutral, has filed a discrimination claim against New Vision West Coast, Inc., a company that offers wilderness therapy to at risk adolescents and young adults in Bend, OR. Thomas alleges xe was offered a position at New Vision after spending several days working with the youth there and being observed by the staff, but that the offer was rescinded after Thomas’s disclosure that xe is transgender. (Thomas goes by the pronouns xe/xyr/xem).
Thomas, who has a Master’s degree from Naropa University, interviewed with New Visions in late-April, and was invited to the in-person interview in May. Thomas traveled from Boulder, CO to Bend, OR on xyr own money, spending five days in the field with the company’s youth groups.
Xe says that during this interview time, xe felt nothing but support and acceptance from xyr potential co-workers. “I felt safe enough with New Vision staff during my observation period to out myself and communicate my need for a open and safe work environment,” Thomas says. “Todd (Merrill, New Vision’s Program Dierctor) assured me that New Vision was an inclusive work place and even said ‘of course you want to be your genuine self at work and we want you to show up genuinely.'”
On Thomas’s second day in Bend, according to xyr complaint, New Vision’s Lead Field Therapist Elizabeth Deardorff asked Thomas, “Would you take this job if we offered it to you? Because I talked to Drew (Hornbeck, New Vision President/Co-Founder), and we would like to offer you the job.”
Xe enthusiastically said “yes.”
On Thomas’s last day in Bend, xe was formally offered a position by Merrill, according to xyr complaint. This was followed by an email three days later inquiring whether Thomas was “available/interested to come to work this next shift.”
The sense of joy and accomplishment Thomas felt at securing this new position quickly evaporated later that day, however, during a call with New Visions co-founder and owner Steve Sawyer. Thomas says xe knew “immediately” that Sawyer intended to discriminate against xem on the basis of gender.
“During our phone conversation, Steve referred to me as ‘a final candidate’ even though Todd had already offered me the job and I was scheduled to start work in 4 days,” xe says. “That was my first internal hit that something was wrong. It was clear that Todd informed Steve of my request to be out at work and, in his own words, Steve had ‘concerns that my gender identity might negatively impact clients.'”
Sawyer requested Thomas write a letter “reflecting” on how xyr gender identity would affect the clients at New Visions, something Thomas says was never asked of any other applicant at New Vision regarding gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion. “I was shocked, hurt, and humiliated by the request,” xe says “I felt personally attacked in a situation where only my professional skills should have been under scrutiny. Although I complied with the request, my hands shook as I tried to explain that my gender identity would not prevent me from being effective therapist.”
Thomas’ lawyer Lake Perriguey asserts that requesting this letter constitutes gender discrimination on Sawyer’s part. “To be asked to write a paper about how your gender identity is going to affect customers is illegal and humiliating,” Perriguey says. “Sorin did it, because xe was eager to begin this new opportunity in a field xe had trained for.”
Thomas phoned Merrill after xyr phone call with Sawyer, explaining the latter’s request, and was assured New Vision would place xem in the field with clients within a week. Soon after, however, communication dried up.
“Steve never responded to my reflection letter,” xe says. “In fact, the only response that I received in the two weeks after I was offered the job was an email from Todd stating, ‘I am deferring clinical hiring over to Steve,’ and two emails from Steve stating, ‘I have been busy,’ and, ‘We are still reviewing and interviewing current applicants. If you need to move forward on other opportunities we certainly understand.'”
“At that point, I recognized a few things,” Thomas says. “One, that the issue was me, personally, not my professional skills. Two, that no one was going to acknowledge that I had been offered the job, nor was anyone going to offer it again. Three, that they were just hoping I’d go away, and, four, that I needed the power of a legal advocate to speak for me because my voice was being silenced, my power crushed, and my rights violated.”
Thomas’s claim has been filed with the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). New Vision has until the middle of the month to respond. Following their response, BOLI will interview the parties and investigate. If the investigation finds there’s sufficient evidence to support Thomas’s claim a settlement amount will be sought. If BOLI does not rule in Thomas’s favor, Perriguey says they will pursue their claim with a lawsuit, but both he and Thomas stress they don’t imagine that will be necessary.
“All of my correspondence with New Vision has been well documented, including a statement from Steve that my gender was a concern for New Vision during the hiring process,” Thomas says.
“I feel confident I can prove everything in the complaint,” Perriguey adds. “Sorin was the victim of gender discrimination, and we’re going to show that.”