- Associated Press - Monday, August 28, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa Department of Corrections discriminated against a transgender employee when it didn’t give him access to communal rooms that correspond with his gender identity and denied him certain health care coverage, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

Jesse Vroegh, a former prison nurse for the department, claims he was denied use of the men’s restrooms and locker rooms at work over several years. He also claims his state-provided health insurance denied coverage for what the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa called “medically necessary surgery” because he is transgender.

The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, is the first transgender rights lawsuit to be filed in the state since the Iowa Civil Rights Act was amended in 2007 to include gender identity and sexual orientation, according to the ACLU. The group is representing Vroegh alongside Des Moines attorney Melissa Hasso.

“Transgender Iowans are just as important to the workplace and the community as anyone else,” Hasso said in a statement. “Jesse simply wants to be treated equally. The Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Iowa Constitution guarantee him that right.”

Vroegh, who worked at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, lives near Des Moines.

He has presented himself as male in the way he dresses and cuts his hair since 2000, according to the ACLU. In 2014 he was clinically diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition where one’s physical gender doesn’t reflect one’s gender identity. He began undergoing medical treatment after that diagnosis.

That same year, Vroegh notified the Corrections Department he would soon move forward with his social transition from female to male. Over several years, the agency denied Vroegh’s requests to access the men’s rooms, according to ACLU.

The department, which is listed as a defendant in the case, didn’t immediately return a message left Monday. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, an insurance carrier, was also named in the lawsuit.

Vroegh claims the Wellmark health insurance policy he was provided through the state denied him coverage to care he said was medically necessary treatment. The ACLU declined specify what care he was denied, but said via email that similar procedures for non-transgender employees were covered under the policy.

A message left for Wellmark was not immediately returned Monday.

The ACLU said in a press release that supervisors told Vroegh he would not be able to use the employee restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with his gender identity because transgender issues were “too controversial.” He was required to use a unisex private restroom to dress and store his belongings, but ACLU argues the agency cannot require employees to use private spaces and deny them use of communal facilities solely because the employee is transgender.

Vroegh said in a statement he is trying to ensure that transgender people are treated the same way as everyone else.

“This process has not been easy,” he said. “I’m doing it because I feel I need to fight for the rights not only of transgender people who work for the state but for other Iowa workers as well.”

Vroegh now works as an assistant director of nursing at a private facility. The ACLU declined to offer details about his departure from corrections.

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