For Zee Brewer, Powell's Books was a literary utopia. So when an accounting job opened in July at the Portland bookseller's corporate office, Brewer jumped at it.
"I thought Powell's was the coolest place on earth," Brewer says. "It just seemed so liberal and bright. It seemed like a reader's playground."
Powell's seemed a good match for Brewer, 37, a staff accountant then living in San Francisco. Brewer is transgender and nonbinary (meaning Brewer was assigned the male gender at birth but identifies as neither male nor female, and prefers to be referred to by the pronouns "they," "their" and "them").
As much as any local company, Powell's touts itself as a champion of civil rights and inclusivity. Each June, for example, the store celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month by hosting queer authors and creating displays dedicated to books with LGBTQ themes. Michael Powell, former owner and son of the company founder, was an outspoken LGBTQ ally—using the store for phone banking in 1992 to fight an anti-gay measure on the ballot.
Mikki Gillette, a spokesperson for Basic Rights Oregon, Oregon's leading LGBTQ rights organization, says Powell's has long been supportive of the LGBTQ community: "Powell's supported BRO during ballot measure campaigns in the '00s and 1990s."
But in August, Brewer filed a complaint against Powell's with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And in October, they filed a second complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. (Brewer provided WW with copies of both filings. An EEOC representative declined comment and BOLI could not immediately confirm the case's status.)
In both cases, Brewer is charging that Powell's discriminated against them for their gender identity, created a hostile workplace, and retaliated when they complained.
The conflict illustrates the speed at which the movement for civil rights for LGBTQ people is moving in this country, all while President Trump's administration seems dead set on rolling back those rights. Most recently, the White House threatened to revoke federal recognition of transgender status. That could end federal workplace protections that bar companies from discriminating against transgender people.
Brewer's frustration started not long after they began working at Powell's and Brewer learned that neither of Powell's corporate office restrooms was gender neutral. (The corporate office is located across the street from the famed City of Books that takes up a square block in the Pearl District.)
That meant whenever Brewer had to use the restroom, they had to walk across the street to the bookstore, up three flights of stairs, to the public gender-neutral restroom there. The break time allotted for this journey: 10 minutes.
"It got to the point where I tried to drink less water," Brewer says, "so I wouldn't have to race the clock to the restroom."
In October, three months after Brewer arrived, Powell's created a gender-neutral restroom in its corporate office. But the conflict didn't end there, Brewer says.
When Brewer arrived at Powell's in July, they sensed their new co-workers in the accounting department were uncomfortable using the pronouns "they," "them" and "their," or even having Brewer around.
"People were so afraid to misgender me they would avoid talking to me altogether," Brewer says.
In August, Brewer's accounting colleagues held a "ladies' lunch" at a Mexican restaurant. All nine of Brewer's co-workers in the department are women. Only Brewer wasn't invited. Instead, Brewer says, they were asked to stay behind to answer phones.
"Being a department of only females, a 'ladies' lunch' meant everyone but me," Brewer says. "I like Mexican food. I like margaritas. I would have loved to be a part of the team."
Gillette, with Basic Rights Oregon, says transgender people commonly experience such harassment at work.
"The most important thing—and what could avoid an EEOC complaint—is for management to be in good communication with the affected worker and to believe them when they tell you what their gender identity is," Gillette says. "And to work with them to find a solution that is affirming and respectful to them."
Brewer says when they complained to Powell's, the human resources department opened several investigations, all of which found in the company's favor.
In July, Brewer sent a doctor's note to the HR department. Its letterhead included the word "infectious diseases" in the doctor's title. Ten days later, Brewer says, Powell's HR demanded to see proof of their HIV status—a violation of federal workplace laws, according to Christine Lewis, legislative director of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
Brewer doesn't plan on staying much longer at Powell's. They hope to become a high school math teacher. They say the company didn't live up to the values it proclaims.
"It makes me feel just immense sadness," Brewer says. "They do one thing and say another. I felt like a problem, just a problem you ignore and hope that it goes away."
Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz declined to discuss Brewer's complaints.
"For over 40 years, Powell's has worked to provide a respectful and supportive workplace for all," Sontz said in a statement to WW. "An employee has raised some concerns that we have addressed, as we do when any employee brings concerns to our attention. In order to respect their rights and in keeping with our long-standing practices, Powell's will not discuss this publicly."