By Emma Lacey-Bordeaux, CNN Radio
Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) - Four years on, Vandy Beth Glenn still gets choked up thinking about the day she was fired from her perfect job.
The petite brunette recalls exactly what her boss said that October day, how the reasons behind the termination sparked a lawsuit that could have far-reaching implications about how transgender people are treated at work.
Vandy Beth Glenn was born Glenn Morrison. At a young age, she says, she knew she wasn’t a man.
“It’s like a constant voice in the back of your head telling you ‘This is wrong. This isn’t the life you are supposed to be living,’” she said.
The voice grew louder as the years went on, but the Georgia native moved through life, earning a journalism degree from the University of Georgia and serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy. She’s fascinated by language, she says, loves to see how government works. In 2005, she landed her perfect job as a legislative editor at the Georgia General Assembly.
Around that time, Glenn’s life outside work began to change, too.
She received a formal diagnosis and name for something she’d long understood: She had gender identity disorder. It’s a somewhat controversial diagnosis but listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the final word for most psychiatrists. The condition is marked by discomfort about one's own biological sex and gender expression.
Working with a therapist, Glenn decided to make the outward change. She began to dress like a woman, and in her personal life, the shift went smoothly. She beams when she recalls the support she received from friends. Some people who transition, she says, experience dramatic breaks with friends, but “that experience is alien to me.” In October 2006, she informed her work supervisor that she planned to become a woman. Her supervisor also expressed support for Glenn and for the decision. For Halloween, she made a first tentative step toward transitioning at work. She decided to come to work dressed as a woman.
The Office of Legislative Counsel at the Georgia General Assembly, where Glenn worked, is responsible for preparing bills for the legislature. The office does serious work, and it’s paramount that it not appear to take any side on matters in front of the legislature. But like in many other workplaces, employees came to work in costumes on Halloween.
Glenn wore conservative women’s business attire, nothing flashy. The outfit did not sit well with the head of her office, Sewell Brumby, who sent her home. He would later testify that he made this decision because “it’s unsettling to think of someone dressed in women’s clothing with male sexual organs inside that clothing.”
Brumby didn’t know that he sent Glenn home because of an outfit she hoped to wear to work every day.
One year later, Glenn, aided by her therapist, decided she’d come to work as a woman: Vandy Beth. She’d continued the charade – a woman at home, a man at work - long enough. Looking back, she quipped, “it’s odd to have two identities and not be fighting crime.”
Glenn's supervisor made Brumby aware of Glenn’s decision. According to court documents, he felt concerned that a transgender employee might be viewed as “perhaps immoral, perhaps unnatural, and perhaps liberal or, if you will, ultraliberal.”
On October 16, 2007, Glenn got the summons she’d dreaded. She was nervous and suspected she was going to lose her job. She questioned whether she would remember the words and reasons her boss used to explain the termination, so she came with a hidden audio recorder.
“Based on previous events that had occurred in the office, I had good reason to believe that I was going to be fired, and I knew that if I was going to pursue any legal action, I would have to have my facts straight,” she said. “I didn’t trust that the man who fired me would necessarily want to accurately report the details of that last conversation, so it just seemed like the prudent thing to do.”
Under Georgia law, Glenn could lawfully record the conversation without her boss’ knowledge or consent, something she knew from a journalism class in college.
“I also thought that, against all odds, that if I didn’t lose my job that day, then the recordings would be a reminder of a great moment in tolerance,” she says.
Glenn’s boss said the way she dressed would make others uncomfortable. He told her that her gender transition would be disruptive.
It all happened so quickly. Before she absorbed the gravity of the moment, she was cleaning out her desk and sitting at home, stunned, with her cats as comfort.
Many months later, in July 2008, Lambda Legal filed suit on behalf of Glenn. The organization, which works to establish equality for the gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and queer community through courts, represented her for free.
Greg Nevins, Glenn’s attorney, knew he’d found a good case when he heard about the recording.
“It was very clear what the reasons were” for her termination, he said. “It was very clearly centered on a belief that people should look a certain way if they are a certain gender in the workplace.”
Indeed, Glenn’s former boss made his reasons plain in his deposition, reiterating a belief that Glenn’s actions were wrong. The state argued that the move did not violate federal law and sought to have the case dismissed.
But despite the legal help, Glenn faced many other costs in the years it took the legal battle to unfold, the costs to her time chief among them.
Months passed before the court ruled on procedural matters, and she had to learn to be patient.
“It wasn’t so important to me how long it took, because I knew it would end,” she said.
Financially, though, the process took a toll. Glenn had to find a way to make money.
She cashed in her retirement savings and drew down her savings. She found work through a temp agency and got editing work from a friend, Chris Lund, who she said “did more than any other one person to keeping me out of bankruptcy in the last several years.” She remembers moments of despair and anger but says she never lost sight of the end point to the suit.
There were costs to her privacy, too. Glenn made news when she took on the state in federal court. She faced probing questions about her genitalia and which bathroom she uses. She had to relive the day her boss fired her again and again. What seems to trouble her most, though, is that nobody ever asks about anything else.
“I’d like to think I’m about a lot more than this. I’m not just a lawsuit plaintiff,” she said. “I’d like to think I’m an intelligent person and a good conversationalist.”
When she speaks about growing up transgendered or facing uncomfortable personal questions, her voice grows soft, almost hard to hear.
But when she speaks about movies or astronomy, she lights up. She rattles off lists of esoteric film directors - Werner Herzog is a favorite - and eagerly explains why Mars fascinates her: “We’ve actually been there. It’s not just some other light in the sky.”
She speaks slowly and deliberately, like she’s thinking about the impact of every word. She weaves in little jokes about grammar and language, then sits back to wait for her audience to catch up.
Still, it was court case that pushed her back into headlines in December.
A U.S. district judge had already found that Glenn was the victim of sex discrimination and said she could return to her job, but that decision was pending the outcome of an appeal.
Months of legal wrangling went by before the case went to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, housed in downtown Atlanta, which has jurisdiction over federal cases from Alabama, Georgia and Florida. It’s one tier below the U.S. Supreme Court and typically viewed as a conservative panel.
But after Glenn’s attorney completed his oral argument in front of the three-judge panel, Nevins says, he had a good feeling. So good that he went home and opened a bottle of champagne.
The judges seemed to readily grasp his argument and even agree with it.
His instinct was right. The 19-page decision leaves little room for interpretation: The judges held that Glenn’s firing met the characteristics of sex discrimination, writing that “all persons, whether transgender or not, are protected from discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes.”
Now, after years of freelance work and living on her savings and retirement accounts, Glenn finds herself back at work and back at the job she loves. The boss who fired her has since retired.
“It feels great to be back,” she said, but she pauses when asked more questions about her return. “I can’t really talk about my job.”
She's not bound to silence by any legal action, but she’s not comfortable discussing the job she fought so hard for.
She didn’t get back pay but did receive full pay and benefits starting in August 2010, after her victory at the federal district court, even though she did not return to work during that time.
Lund, the friend who helped Glenn find editing work, says her return to work is the first step “towards making her whole.” He stresses that she still has a tough road ahead to get back to where she was, professionally and financially, before her termination.
But Glenn says she hopes the suit will help others in her position.
“I know it sounds like a line, and I’ve said it countless times, but this was never about me,” she said.
Employment lawyers say the ruling may, indeed, go broader than Glenn’s case, as employment lawyers and professors think through the implications of the precedent.
Jamie L. Dodge, a law professor at the University of Georgia who represented employers in discrimination actions, says that because of the decision, she’d recommend that employers revise their policies concerning transgender employees.
The state of Georgia still has the option to appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The attorney for the state did not return calls for comment about the option.
But Dodge says a reversal of the decision seems unlikely.
“The Supreme Court already indicated that this was the way they were looking at these issues,” she said.
In the appellate court’s decision, it cites a Supreme Court case from 20 years ago in which a woman was denied promotion because she was deemed too “macho.” The Supreme Court found that behavior to be discriminatory on the basis of sex.
Now, the 11th Circuit has said the same protection the law affords to others applies to transgender people as well: A person cannot be lawfully terminated because an employer objects to the way an employee expresses his or her gender.
But transgender advocates caution that the ruling will not end workplace discrimination. They hope for legislation at the state and federal levels that bars discrimination based on gender. Currently, only a handful of states protect transgender employees.
For the second consecutive year, a measure that would protect gay, transgender and bisexual state workers will be up for consideration in Georgia’s General Assembly. Glenn sees these moves as part of a trend. She expects prejudices against people like her will fade in her lifetime, although, for some, it will always “get their dander up.”
“Just hope,” she said, “they don’t have power over you.”