ACLU Files Civil Rights Case Against Winn-Dixie Stores For Firing Trucker Who Cross-Dresses Away from Work

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
October 23, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU of Louisiana
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NEW ORLEANS, LA – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against grocery store giant Winn-Dixie on behalf of a heterosexual male truck driver who was fired because away from work he sometimes dresses in women’s clothing and expresses a feminine identity.

Peter Oiler

Peter Oiler and his wife of 23 years, Shirley

Peter Oiler, 45, worked for 20 years at Winn-Dixie, a top Fortune 500 company with more than 1,100 grocery stores in 14 Southern states. Last year, after Oiler’s supervisors learned that he occasionally cross-dresses off the job, he was fired.

By terminating Oiler because he did not conform to the company’s stereotyped notions of how a man ought to look and act, Winn-Dixie violated state and federal laws that bar sex discrimination, the ACLU contends.

“Peter Oiler followed all company policies, never violated the dress code and, most importantly, he did a good job and earned numerous promotions and raises,” said Jennifer Middleton, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “His termination strikes at the very core of why these civil rights laws exist – to keep bigotry and bias out of employment decisions.”

While existing legal precedent says that employers cannot force people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes, today’s lawsuit goes further by arguing that the ban on stereotyping protects gender-variant people. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Louisiana, seeks unspecified damages as a result of lost wages and emotional distress.

“I never expected Winn-Dixie to approve of my personal life or to punish me for it – I just never thought it had any bearing on how I do my job,” Oiler said. “Losing the job I’ve had for practically my entire adult life has been a difficult ordeal, and I’m grateful for the loving support of my wife and the transgender community in Louisiana that has stood by us steadfastly.”

Oiler, who has been married for more than 23 years, has known since childhood that his gender identity is not stereotypically male. He cross-dresses to express his femininity. Like many people who are gender-variant in some way, Oiler was outcast earlier in life and consequently kept his identity secret until coming out as transgendered to close friends and family in 1996.

“Peter Oiler’s experience is relatively common. What’s uncommon is that he is open and honest about who he is, and that he’s standing up to one of America’s largest corporations and demanding to be treated fairly,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

Last month, a police officer in North Carolina was forced out of his job because he cross-dresses away from work, according to the ACLU. The International Foundation for Gender Education estimates that 75 percent of cross-dressers are heterosexual men, many of whom are married. Gender nonconformance occurs in people of different sexual orientations, marital statuses and sexes.

“Most people defy gender stereotypes, sometimes subtly – like women who ride motorcycles or men who wear earrings — and sometimes more obviously,” Cook said. “Peter Oiler cross-dresses because of his deeply held gender identity — but if he can be fired, even people who cross-dress as part of a Halloween costume can lose their jobs.”

Of the more than two dozen municipalities that bar transgender discrimination, some only allow off-the-job gender expression and others broadly prohibit gender stereotyping. An ordinance recently passed in New Orleans protects cross-dressing away from work, but the Winn-Dixie branch that fired Oiler is located just outside that jurisdiction.

The case filed today is Peter Oiler v. Winn-Dixie Stores. In addition to Middleton, Oiler is represented by Ron Wilson, a leading civil rights attorney volunteering on the case for the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana. Winn-Dixie will have a month to file a response to the lawsuit before additional court action is scheduled.

Peter Oiler is a cross-dresser who considers himself transgendered, and should be identified as such. Recent clarification by the Associated Press Style Book generally indicates that transgendered people should be identified in the terms they use to describe themselves. As such, “transvestite” or “drag queen”and “female impersonator” are not appropriate terms for this situation. Additionally, “transsexual” is inaccurate, as Oiler does not intend to physically transition from one sex to another. Male pronouns are appropriate in referring to Oiler.

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