Transgender woman suing over restroom use now claims retaliation

Transgender woman suing over restroom use now claims retaliation
Published: Aug. 21, 2014 at 1:24 AM HST|Updated: Aug. 21, 2014 at 10:07 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A transgender woman who has filed both state and federal discrimination complaints because she was not allowed to use the women's restroom at her state office for years said Wednesday she's now the victim of retaliation from co-workers.

A judge Wednesday ruled against the state and did not force Kelli Keawe, 50, to settle her Circuit Court lawsuit which will likely cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Keawe, a transgender woman, filed suit four years ago against the state because she claimed for nine years she has not been allowed to use a women's restroom down the hall from her office at the Hawaii Paroling Authority, where's she's an office assistant.

"They automatically told me I'm not allowed to use the female restroom. I have to use an unmarked bathroom," Keawe said.

Instead, Keawe said state Public Safety Department officials told her to use two unisex restrooms that have since been designated for the disabled at the Public Safety headquarters complex at 919 Ala Moana, near Ward Avenue.

"The employer should take the strong stand and protect transgenders. Protect them in the workplace," Keawe said.

Keawe said in previous jobs she never was barred from using the women's restrooms when she worked at the state tax and labor departments.

Sources said Keawe originally asked for $300,000 in damages, but she and her attorney made an initial agreement to settle the case for $35,000.

Wednesday, a lawyer for the state unsuccessfully tried to get a judge to force Keawe to accept the settlement, claiming her lawyer didn't detail his displeasure with the deal until last week, nearly three months after the initial terms were presented.

"To me, it shows bad faith. What did they do for three months? What were they doing? The defendants were attempting to finalize the settlement agreement at every step," Deputy Attorney General Maria Cook told Circuit Judge Jeannette Castagnetti.

Castagnetti Wednesday gave both sides eight days to work out a new settlement on their own and if they can't do so, she ordered them to be back in court August 28 and she will oversee settlement discussions.

Reached for comment, state Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said: "This is still a pending legal matter. We have been advised by legal counsel not to comment."

After the judge's ruling, Keawe's attorney in the civil suit, Peter Hsieh, said this is an important case because, "People may not agree with their lifestyle or even accept their lifestyle. But under the law, they have a right to be treated fairly."

State officials began allowing Keawe to use the women's restroom in late April, after nine years of her complaints and that's when she said she began to suffer retaliation in her workplace.

"Messing my desk. Turned into trashing my desk, turned into hiding my work assignments," Keawe said.

State officials called those charges "baseless" and a July 9 letter from Public Safety Director Ted Sakai found there was "no evidence to substantiate any" of her 10 allegations of workplace retaliation complaints.

Now the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is taking up her case and in May concluded there was sufficient evidence to establish that her civil rights were violated.

"Transgender discrimination is an important national issue that is just beginning to receive serious attention in courts and from the EEOC across the country," said attorney Lowell Chun-Hoon, her attorney handling the EEOC case that also includes workplace retaliation allegations.

Hina Wong-Kalu, who heads Kulia Na Mamo, a transgender advocacy group, was in the courtroom to show Keawe support.

"In Hawaii, people should not have to endure prejudice and discrimination, especially for something like this, when in our culture, these things are accepted and a part of who we are," Wong-Kalu said.

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