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A transgender Kansas state employee says she was harassed at work after her transition

A Kansas Department of Corrections sign
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Department of Corrections allegedly discriminated against Shelly Lamb, a former counselor and supervisor, for transitioning.

Shelly Lamb argues in a federal lawsuit that coworkers and inmates at the Kansas Department of Corrections harassed her and the department violated her civil rights and committed sex discrimination because she is a transgender woman.

A transgender woman is suing the Kansas Department of Corrections in federal court for creating a hostile work environment when she transitioned.

Shelly Lamb, a former counselor and supervisor for the agency’s prison facility in Hutchinson, argues her civil rights were violated because the state agency refused to acknowledge her transition, use her new name or stop employees and inmates from misusing her pronouns and catcalling her.

She also argues the agency retaliated against her when she pushed for her civil rights by moving her office to a basement closet and then another office with no air conditioning before she eventually resigned in 2022.

Madeline Johnson of Missouri Kansas Queer Law, who is representing Lamb, said the agency’s actions are a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex.

“It's a pretty clear-cut case of discrimination and retaliation,” Johnson said, “because Shelly came out in her place of employment.”

Lamb is seeking an unspecified amount of financial compensation for lost pay and benefits.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has not yet filed a response to the complaint. Officials also declined to comment. Spokesperson David Thompson said in an email that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court. That means the case bypasses the state law known as the “Women’s Bill of Rights,” which legally defines a man and woman by their sex assigned at birth. Opponents also argued the law would bar transgender women from using women’s bathrooms, but the ACLU of Kansas and Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach now say there is no enforcement mechanism.

Johnson said the state law, enacted last year, would also not apply to Lamb because the alleged discrimination occurred before then.

According to the filed complaint, Lamb said she notified the Kansas Department of Corrections in October 2021 that she planned to transition and begin presenting herself as a woman. But the agency’s human resources department allegedly told her it would not acknowledge her transition and prohibited her from wearing a hairpiece, makeup, nail polish or women’s clothing. Lamb was also told not to use the women’s bathroom, according to the complaint.

Lamb alleges the department would not require other employees to use her new name or female pronouns when referring to her, resulting in other employees and inmates harassing her. And the agency would not acknowledge her name in its database for months despite Lamb obtaining a new driver’s license showing the change, according to the complaint.

Lamb also alleges the human resources department implied that her position required her to be a man, despite other female employees working in the same position.

After Lamb’s transition, the agency allegedly changed Lamb's job duties, took away her counseling caseload and moved the office she shared with other employees to a basement office that was originally a supply closet. Lamb’s office was later changed again to an unused portion of the facility that did not have air conditioning, according to her complaint.

Lamb contends in the lawsuit that her employers were trying to force her to resign. She eventually resigned from the position in August 2022.

After speaking to an attorney, Lamb notified the human resources department that she had a right to present as a woman and that she would continue to do so at work. She also said she would sue if she was continued to be required to “hide her gender identity and remain ‘closeted.’”

Johnson said the actions from Kansas Department of Corrections employees result in sex discrimination and retaliation. She points to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 2020 — known as Bostock v. Clayton County — that ruled federal civil rights law prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, wrote in the ruling that the law extends to people who are transgender.

"An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex," Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what (the civil rights law) forbids.”

While Kansas’ “Women’s Bill of Rights” does not apply to the federal case, it does highlight the conservative view toward transgender individuals. The law was one of two the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed in 2023 restricting transgender rights.

Johnson said those laws are likely unconstitutional.

“This is an important case and a very important time,” Johnson said. “We’re very confident in our pleadings and believe Shelly has a very strong case.”

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Updated: February 1, 2024 at 4:47 PM CST
This story was updated to add more context about the Women's Bill of Rights law.
As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.