Transgender odyssey

Workplace inequity takes teacher from Michigan campus to national stage

By Todd A. Heywood

When Julie Nemecek first told the president of Spring Arbor University that she was transgender and would be assuming her female persona, the president, Nemecek said, was supportive. But in the weeks that followed, the associate professor was subjected to a series of rules that became more and more restrictive.

Nemecek, an ordained Baptist minister who changed her name from John, could not wear women's clothing or makeup on the campus of the conservative Christian school, which prohibits same-sex relationships. She could not teach on campus; only online. She could not discuss her transition with anybody from Spring Arbor University. She could not identify herself as an employee of Spring Arbor. Her salary was cut.

But all the repressive actions by the university, which is located 9 miles southwest of Jackson, were not enough to stop Nemecek from becoming who she was.

Last fall, the university notified her that she had violated her agreement not to identify herself as an employee when she was seen shopping in a local grocery store wearing a Spring Arbor University T-shirt.

"I own an Oxford T-shirt, too; does that mean I work for them?" Nemecek quipped in a conversation with students at Lansing Community College's Gay Straight Alliance.

Her employer decided to use the T-shirt incident as a pretext to dismiss Nemecek from her post. "They were hoping I would stay silent," Nemecek said.

Instead, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then she went public with her story in the Jackson Citizen Patriot. Within a short time, Julie Nemecek was a national story, featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal and numerous other publications.

She settled with Spring Arbor for an undisclosed sum, but she has remained an ardent and committed spokesperson for the rights of transgender people.

The decision to terminate Nemecek because of her gender identity also led Lansing Community College, the third-largest community college in Michigan, to demand that the partners in their new University Center adhere to LCC's policies and local laws. LCC prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression, and a Lansing human rights ordinance also protects against discrimination on those factors, as well.

Spring Arbor was a partner in the new LCC program, designed to offer students an easy transition from two-year college to four-year university. Last summer, Spring Arbor formally withdrew from the partnership, saying it could not adhere to the LCC policies and local laws. The university would not comment on the Nemecek case.

In an interview just before Christmas with Nemecek - while she and her wife, Joanne, were on their way to Grand Rapids to visit their son, daughter-in-law and grandchild - she was quick to point out that she was not the first transgender person to bring the issues to the forefront; nor was she the most significant. At about the same time she came out, Susan Staton, then a city manager in Florida, also came out and eventually was dismissed from her job.

But the onslaught of national media attention was not something Nemecek and her wife expected. "We knew the local paper would have an article, but Joanne and I were committed to tell the story to whoever was willing to tell the story fairly," she said. She only declined one interview with what she called a radio "shock jock."

"The more you tell your story, the more people can understand," Nemecek said. "The more people understand and have a face to attach to it, the harder it is to hate."

She said progress has been slow, like "walking on a sand dune," but she expects progress for transgender protection to continue.

"Within a year, I think all the major universities in the state will have added gender identity and expression into their policies, and most will have begun to address the issues of practice of those policies," she said. "I expect twice as many cities will have ordinances than now, and I would think a significant number of businesses will, as well."

"The growth (of protections) has been phenomenal. It if continues at this rate, we will have more than half of the businesses in the Fortune 500, and that will have a trickle-down effect."

She also said she was pleased to see more and more faith organizations confronting the issue head-on. "That can help address the hate rhetoric from uninformed people," Nemecek said.

Considering the media attention, would she and Joanne come out again? "We have no regrets at all," Nemecek said. "Living in secrecy and in fear and in the closet is not fun. Being out and open is wonderful. If we had it to do over again, we would do it - maybe even sooner."

"It has drawn Joanne and I together and deepened our faith," Nemecek cited as the most beneficial aspect of coming out. "We are very aware of God's presence."

Todd A. Heywood is a freelance writer in Lansing

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