Former bus driver Russia Brown broke new ground for CTA employees.
In 2019, WTTW News covered his successful push for the transit agency to add gender affirming care to its health insurance policy. That includes a range of health care designed to support transgender people, whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Since that breakthrough, Brown has been fired from his job as a driver. He’s now suing the CTA and the union representing bus operators alleging discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.
Russia Brown hasn’t been back to his old CTA stomping grounds for two years. But on a recent afternoon near the Jefferson Park station, he still got recognized by old coworkers from a job he took a lot of pride in.
“I wanted to be a part of the bloodline of the city,” he said. “Without the CTA, Chicago kind of stops.”
His former coworkers might have recognized him for more than just their time on the job. Brown received a good deal of attention when he, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully pushed the CTA to cover gender affirming health care.
“I didn’t think anyone would care. I didn’t think that the story would get as big as it got,” he said.
Brown was proud of his efforts, but it also meant sharing something deeply personal.
“I basically outed myself to the whole city,” Brown said. “(When) I got to a new work location, … a lot of coworkers who I didn’t know were coming up congratulating me.”
Brown also had a sense of fear, knowing that not everyone would support him. He says some coworkers made hurtful, joking comments, and that he faced harassment and even death threats.
“I reached out to CTA’s [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]. I reached out to my union. To my knowledge, nothing was ever done about that,” Brown said. “It made me want to go into myself even more.”
Brown says it went beyond inaction.
During a 2020 Facebook Live Q&A, the union’s president, Keith Hill, responded to an employee question about the quality of the agency’s health care plan with a comment that Brown still thinks about.
“People complain about our health insurance,” Hill said. “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.”
“I felt embarrassed because with that statement came a lot of jokes from my coworkers, and I felt a bit ashamed,” Brown said. “This was shortly after I asked him to help me save my job.”
Brown needed that help because the CTA accused him of falsifying a leave of absence request under the Family Medical Leave Act to deal with ongoing back issues. Brown says the agency asked him to get a second and then a third opinion – then, stopped communicating with him about next steps.
“I’m thinking it’s just a minor mix up that we could fix, but it didn’t turn out to be that easy,” Brown said.
Brown was suspended and later fired. He says it came after a series of incidents where he faced harsher discipline and more scrutiny than his coworkers did.
“I was devastated,” Brown said. “I invested so much time and effort into it … I felt like I was finally getting to a place where I was really kind of getting in the groove.”
Brown argues his termination was a result of his advocacy for gender-affirming care. At the time he was fired, he’d started the process of gender confirmation surgery.
“But it all came to a quick halt,” he said.
“Sometimes we get a case and we get an inclination that the outcome was predetermined, and this was one of those cases,” said attorney Christina Abraham. She’s representing Brown in his lawsuit against the CTA and the union.
Abraham argues they targeted and discriminated against Brown because he’s transgender and because he spoke out about inclusive health care.
“Very rarely do you get a situation where a manager is going to tell you, you’re too much trouble, we’re going to get rid of you,” Abraham said. “They use a cover for the discrimination or the retaliation that seems like it’s procedurally OK. And that’s what I thought was going on here.”
The CTA declined to talk about the case. The union didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In their responses to Brown’s lawsuit, both broadly deny his claims and argue that his termination and the representation he got from the union were above board.
The union denied that Brown reported harassment and threats to the union, denied that its president’s comments in the Facebook Live video were disparaging, and said the union has never discriminated against anyone based on their gender identity or sex.
The CTA also said it does not engage in discrimination, and said it does not have enough information regarding Brown’s allegations of harassment from coworkers and unfair discipline from management. The transit agency also stood by its decision to terminate Brown for FMLA falsification.
But the issues in the case go beyond legal questions.
Jae Rice is interim CEO of Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and trans-led nonprofit that helps LGBTQ+ Chicagoans look and feel like themselves. Rice says gender affirming care can be lifesaving for trans people – everything from a wig or a haircut to surgery or mental health support.
“This isn’t about hiding who we are, but really having who we are on the inside be more aligned with how we present on the outside,” Rice said.
Advocates say that’s crucial for trans people’s mental health. A 2019 study in the journal Transgender Health found trans people were four times as likely to experience a mental health condition. Rice says for Black trans folks, things can be even more difficult.
“It is maneuvering multiple forms of oppression on a daily basis and not really knowing why someone hates you,” Rice said. “Is it because I’m trans? Is it because I’m Black? Is it because I’m queer? Which one is it today?”
Brown says he’s taking on the challenges he’s faced one day at a time.
“Depression, you know, is present. It’s hard,” Brown said. “It’s not what I thought I was going to be doing with my life. It’s not where I thought I would be.”
Despite losing his job, Brown says he’s hopeful this lawsuit can make the CTA a more welcoming environment for trans workers.
“I think it’s important for everyone to advocate for them for themselves when they’ve been wronged, because otherwise, how do we change these systems?”
The case is headed into discovery, where all the parties have to share relevant information and documentation. The lawsuit is set for a status hearing late this summer.
Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg