Natalie Johnson, a Macy's employee in San Antonio, Texas, was convinced the teenager in women's clothes and makeup was male. So she watched the teen shop in the women's section. And when the teen left the women's changing room, she intervened.
"I had to just straightforward tell him, 'You're a man,' " the 27-year-old student and regular churchgoer told TV station KSAT.
But the transgender teen insisted to Johnson that she was female, and the teen's five friends rallied behind her.
A manager called Johnson in the next day to explain that Macy's policy permits individuals to go into the changing room of whatever gender they identify with.
"I refuse to comply with this policy," Johnson says she replied. She was then fired.
"I had to either comply with Macy's or comply with God," Johnson told The San Antonio Express-News.
Johnson contacted the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian law firm and policy organization, which helped her file a complaint on her behalf with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces discrimination laws for employees and job applicants.
Johnson's religious beliefs prevent her from recognizing transgender people, she said. By firing her over this belief, Macy's had violated her rights, she claims.
The case pits transgender rights against religious freedoms, a standoff that has cropped up more and more as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has gained more legal status. In September, one town clerk was caught up in a public scandal over LGBT rights when she refused to marry two women because of her religious beliefs.
Many members of the conservative Christian camp deny that transgenderism qualifies for legal protections, and view people who identify with a gender other than their born sex as deviant, or a radical minority who live in violation of Christian laws.
"There are no transgenders in the world. A guy can dress up as a woman all he wants, that's still not going to make you a woman," Johnson told KSAT.
In its coverage of the story, The Christian Post refers to the customer as a cross-dresser, and transgender only in quotation marks.
"Macy's has essentially opened women's dressing rooms to every man," Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, told the Houston Chronicle. "The LGBT agenda has become the theater of the absurd."
The LGBT side argues that transgender people exist, and so accommodations should be made for them. The liberal blog Jezebel jokes that while the Bible does expressly forbid women and men from wearing the opposite sex's clothing, it also bans wearing wool-linen blends just a few lines later. So Macy's is blasphemous anyway.
"Macy's does not comment on personnel matters," said Melissa Goff, the Macy's regional spokeswoman. "At Macy's we recognize and appreciate the diversity of our customers and associates."
Macy's boasts about its progressive LGBT policies. Since 2007, the department store has been awarded a 100 percent rating in the Corporate Equality Index report, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
"Macy's policy which allows men to use the women's dressing room is fraught with problems," argues Staver in a statement. "This policy will cause significant problems and will alienate the majority of Macy's customers."
But this may not be true. After all the attention paid to Chaz Bono, "Dancing With the Stars" contestant and transgender child of Sonny and Cher, the Public Religion Research Institute surveyed American attitudes toward transgender people in August and September, and found that 89 percent believed that they deserved the same rights and protections as their fellow citizens. Eighty-three percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed.
But people disagree over what rights and protections mean.
More and more U.S. companies are covering the cost of gender reassignment surgery, The Associated Press reported Thursday. A decade ago, no company included sex-change surgeries in their insurance plans, according to The Human Rights Campaign. Now almost a third of the 636 surveyed businesses did.
There are currently no federal laws that protect transgender people from job discrimination, but three-quarters of Americans believe Congress should pass some. Three-quarters of religious Americans don't support this kind of legislation, but a majority of every major religious group does.
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