When Tea Gillis started work last August as a senior designer at Northwest Natural Products in Vancouver, Gillis went by Todd Gillis and wore slacks and men's shirts.
But Gillis, who has two children and lives in Southeast Portland, was also seriously considering sexual reassignment surgery, and had been taking estrogen treatments for over a year to become a woman.
Now, Gillis alleges in a complaint to the Washington Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that her abrupt termination in February resulted from her request to begin dressing as a woman at work while she prepared to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
Gillis and her attorney, Lake Perriguey, allege that Northwest Natural Products, a manufacturer of gummy-bear vitamins, violated federal and state laws on gender identity discrimination.
âThey were using my work on a national level,â says Gillis, 47. âI thought it was going very well.â
Gillis says she came to work a few months into her $58,000-a-year job as a senior package designer wearing nail polish. Perceiving discomfort from her direct supervisor and some co-workers, Gillis says she went to human resources and asked if the nail polish violated any company rules.
Gillis says a human resources rep, Amy Mullins, told her she had no problem with it, and told her to "go ahead and get her freak on." Gillis also began wearing a bra to work to address her changing body.
Gillis says many of her co-workers knew she was a "trans-woman" and had seen her dressed as a woman outside of work.
"We all got along very well," says Gillis. "They called me the 'color' of the office."
In January, Gillis' psychiatrist told her she had to begin presenting as a woman—wearing a complete female wardrobe, makeup and going by the name of Tea—full-time to prepare for her surgery.
This time, Gillis says, the HR rep told her she would have to talk to her supervisor and "see if it was something they could handle."
Two weeks later, Gillis says she hadn't heard back from Mullins or her supervisor. Her attempts to contact them were unreturned. Eventually, Gillis says she was told the department didn't have time "to consider her concerns."
On Feb. 22, Gillis says Mullins fired her without reason, saying she was "no longer a good fit for the company."
"I was shocked," Gillis says. "I checked with my creative director frequently. The owner was very pleased."
Northwest Natural Products President Kate Jones says Gillis was fired because the company was dissatisfied with her work.
"Ms. Gillis' poor attendance and work quality are well-documented and speak for themselves," Jones says. "There is absolutely no basis for this claim."
Since her termination, Gillis has been unable to find work, forcing her to postpone her reassignment surgery and stop seeing her psychiatrist.
âItâs really tough,â she says of finding work. âDo I go out as Todd? Do I go out as Tea? Iâm really in a strange place.â