CHICAGO — Former bus operator Russia Brown joined the CTA with hopes of “helping the city move.” The hours were long but the job paid well, Brown said.
“I was just trying to put my head down, go to work and get home,” Brown said.
There was one thing Brown, a transgender man, felt needed to change: He wanted to get gender-reaffirming surgery, but it wasn’t covered under the agency’s insurance.
Working with the ACLU of Illinois, Brown fought successfully to expand the CTA’s insurance coverage to include gender-affirming surgery, which he underwent in 2018.
But the CTA later suspended and fired Brown.
Brown now alleges the move was in retaliation for his pursuit of the surgery as part of his transitioning process. Brown is suing the agency and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241, which represents CTA workers.
In court documents, lawyers for the CTA said Brown provided “false statements” about an unrelated medical leave, which led to his termination.
But Brown said he was fired after the agency “ran me in circles” on requirements to validate his leave, alleging the process was retaliation for his advocacy to receive gender-affirming care.
Brown — who had long scraped by in driving jobs — said he hoped CTA would be the place he could fully be himself at work.
“But I’ve had to start over. I invested so much time with that company,” Brown said. “I’m not able to get [other] gender-affirming surgeries because my insurance was linked to that job. I feel very mistreated, discarded. It’s not a good time.”
In an emailed statement, a CTA spokesperson said the agency “denies taking any action against Russia Brown based on their gender identity or any other protected status.”
“The CTA is vigorously defending the lawsuit,” the spokesperson said. “Beyond that, we do not comment on pending litigation.”
Ron Willis, an attorney speaking on behalf of the local union and its president Keith Hill, said in an emailed statement that neither party “discriminated against or targeted Mr. Brown in any way.”
Brown Enlists ACLU For Help
Over a series of interviews with Block Club, Brown said he signed up for the CTA in 2016 and found the job to be a good fit for his background in trucking. Beyond normal aches and pains from driving a bulky bus and dealing with occasionally cagey customers, the work was smooth at first, he said.
But Brown started to feel alienated at work when he began transitioning after a couple months in the job, he said.
“I was trying to stay under the radar, hoping many people wouldn’t notice,” Brown said. “But things started to change when I started to look noticeably different.”
Some coworkers sent Brown death threats, and superiors gave him mixed messages about which bathroom he should use, Brown said in court documents.
He told a union rep about the issues at work, but that “did not materialize to any action,” Brown said in court documents.
“Neither one of them knew what the policy was,” Brown said. “I went into the men’s room one day and all the men just froze … and people were already looking at me funny in the woman’s room, now the men’s room, what I am supposed to do?”
But with a steady paying job and good health insurance, Brown wanted to finally further affirm his gender. He found an in-network surgeon who accepted the company insurance to perform top surgery and scheduled the date for the surgery.
Surgery and hormones are among the methods trans people use in the transition process to “bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity,” according to GLAAD. Brown’s transition required medical procedures “most people would not be able to afford if paying out-of-pocket,” according to his court documents.
In December 2017, the CTA denied coverage for Brown’s surgery, saying it only covered the procedure for people with cancer.
Brown connected with ACLU Illinois, whose national organization has helped transgender people across the country litigate cases to eliminate barriers to health care.
ACLU attorneys, working on behalf of Brown, sent a letter to the CTA, who then approved Brown for the surgery in 2018, according to a news release and a response letter from the agency reviewed by Block Club.
“CTA’s longstanding policy is to maintain and support a diverse and inclusive
environment for all its employees,” said the agency’s general counsel in the letter. “Accordingly, the CTA will add gender confirmation surgery to the services its medical insurance covers…”
Brown received a bilateral mastectomy in 2019, he said.
“I am glad the CTA stepped up and did the right thing,” Brown said in a statement after the decision. “In a company of 11,000 people, I was able to help change this policy for the better — and that feels really good.”
‘All That B—-ing You’ve Been Doing … Is Not Going To Work‘
Looking for a fresh start and a job closer to home, Brown transferred to the 77th Street Garage in 2020, he said.
But pressures against him at work began to mount further, Brown said.
Hill, the bus union president, spoke with Brown shortly after he started there, Brown said in court documents.
“After I clocked in and I walked up to him, … he looked at me and said, ‘All that b—-ing you’ve been doing up north is not going to work. You’re out south now,’” Brown said. “It was strange for him to just say that … I thought he was upset for me involving the ACLU to change the policy.”
Brown took medical leave starting in summer 2020 for unrelated back issues, he said in court documents. Despite being told initially he was eligible for leave, CTA management accused Brown of taking an improper leave of absence, Brown said in court documents.
The CTA suspended Brown without pay around October 2020, Brown said.
CTA management asked Brown to get a second and then third opinion verifying his injury — then stopped communicating about next steps, Brown said.
Brown reached out to Hill, who told Brown there was nothing the union could do about his suspension and he “should allow the process to unfold,” Brown said in court documents.
While Brown struggled to engage Hill and other union officials for help, Hill took to his private Facebook page shortly after in November 2020 and alluded to Brown’s policy change while answering questions about the company insurance, according to a video reviewed by Block Club.
“People complain about our health insurance,” Hill said in the video. “And I can’t say this the way I want to say it on Live because I don’t want it coming back to, uh – you can get a whole sex change on our health insurance.”
Brown watched the video and “felt nauseous,” he said.
“It singled me out. It was very unprofessional, and in the comments my case became a mockery,” Brown said. “I felt hopeless. This was the man that could have saved my job. And it was clear I wasn’t going to get fair treatment from him.”
Brown was fired from the CTA Jan. 7, 2021, according to court documents.
In response documents submitted to the court, union lawyers deny Brown told union officials about harassment problems and threats. CTA lawyers said in court documents they do not discriminate.
Willis, the attorney for Hill and the union, said the CTA ultimately moved to terminate Brown, and that Hill and the union “continue to prosecute” the grievance Brown filed with the agency through “usual procedures.”
“Labor unions are unfortunately, but commonly, subject to lawsuits filed by disgruntled members who have been fired by their employers and feel their union should have done something more to represent them,” Willis said in an email. “Local 241 looks forward to its opportunity to prove the facts through the court process…”
The lawsuit is currently in discovery phase until mid-August, said Brown’s attorney Christina Abraham.
Brown said he’s been dealing with depression, working to surround himself with supportive people and trying to get back on his feet.
He hopes his story can help other trans people who are transitioning while navigating their workplace.
“We need to hold people and corporations accountable for how they treat their workers,” Brown said. “These are supposed to be safe spaces for everyone.”
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