San Francisco transgender man sues school over alleged mistreatment

A man is suing his former school and employer, alleging that positive reviews and recommendations all turned sour and that his supervisors took retaliatory actions after he disclosed his transgender status.

Everything was going fine for Kellen Bennett as the Oakland-based licensed marriage counselor pursued a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Alliant International University in San Francisco from August 2006 to October 2011. His grades were good and his recommendations solid. But then one day in October 2011, he told a faculty member and several classmates in a group session that he is transgender.

All of a sudden, positive reviews turned to bad ones, and a promised postdoctoral internship evaporated. One of his supervisors began repeatedly using the word “tranny” in his presence and school records were altered in an attempt to deny him a job, Bennett alleges in a lawsuit filed late last year against the university’s California School of Professional Psychology.

Bennett, who has lived as a man for 13 years after undergoing sexual-reassignment surgery, sued Alliant and faculty members Dr. Elizabeth Milnes and Dr. Gregory Wells, according to documents on file at San Francisco Superior Court.

The revelation came to light in one of Milnes’ classes, the lawsuit states. At the time, Bennett was employed via Alliant’s in-house psychiatric services provider at two Bay Area high schools as a counselor.

Milnes allegedly repeatedly used the word “tranny” in front of Bennett in class, and Wells allegedly told peers and supervisors to “watch Bennett” and “make sure he doesn’t do anything inappropriate,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges workplace discrimination and harassment and failure to promote.

Through attorney Roberto Ripamonti, Bennett declined to comment.

Citing ongoing litigation, Alliant Vice President Jennifer Wilson declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but said the school “vigorously disputes” Bennett’s allegations.

“We pride ourselves on our diversity,” she said. “We would never condone transgender discrimination.”

While Bennett did not receive a postdoctoral internship through Alliant, he did receive his degree, Wilson said.

Using the word “tranny” in front of a transgender person is akin to using the n-word in front of black people, according to Theresa Sparks, a transgender woman who chairs The City’s Human Rights Commission.

“That’s always been a negative term, and it’s usually harassment or bullying,” she said.  “This does happen here [in San Francisco], and this is not an isolated case.”

Transgender people suffer from much higher unemployment rates and face significant barriers to health care and housing, Sparks said.

Seventy percent of transgender people reported workplace discrimination or harassment, according to a report from the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center.

Between 0.2 percent and 2 percent of Americans identify as transgender, a number that “varies wildly” because the U.S. Census Bureau makes no accommodation for such people, who often do not self-identify because of
discrimination issues, Sparks said.

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