Former bus driver Russia Brown has broken new ground for CTA employees.
In 2019, WTTW News covered her success push for the transit agency to add gender-affirming care to your health insurance policy. This includes a range of healthcare designed to support transgender people, whose gender identity is different from the sex assigned to them at birth.
Since that turn, Brown has been fired from his job as a chauffeur. He is now suing the CTA and the union representing the bus operators for alleged discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.
Russia Brown hasn’t returned to his old CTA stomping grounds for two years. But on a recent afternoon near Jefferson Park Station, he was still recognized by old colleagues for work he was very proud of.
“I wanted to be part of the city bloodline,” she said. “Without the CTA, Chicago Stands Down.”
His former colleagues may have recognized him for more than just his time at work. Brown received a lot of attention when, together with the American Civil Liberties Union, he successfully pushed the CTA to cover gender-affirming health care.
“I didn’t think anyone would care. I didn’t think the story was going to get as big as it got,” she said.
Brown was proud of his efforts, but it also meant sharing something deeply personal.
“I basically came out to the whole city,” Brown said. “(When) I arrived at a new workplace, … many colleagues I didn’t know were arriving to congratulate me.”
Brown also had a sense of dread, knowing not everyone would support him. He says that some colleagues have made offensive and joking comments and that he has suffered harassment and even death threats.
“I contacted the CTAs [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]. I contacted my union. As far as I know, nothing was ever done about it,” Brown said. “It made me want to go into myself even more.”
Brown says it has gone beyond inertia.
During a 2020 Facebook live Q&A session, union president Keith Hill responded to an employee’s question about the quality of the agency’s health plan with a comment Brown is still thinking about.
“People are complaining about our health insurance,” Hill said. “I can’t say it the way I want to say it on Live because I don’t want it to go 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 colleagues and I was a little ashamed,” Brown said. “This was shortly after I asked him to help save my job.”
Brown needed that help because the CTA accused him of forging a request for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to address an ongoing backlog. 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 little mess we could fix, but it hasn’t turned out to be that easy,” Brown said.
Brown was suspended and subsequently fired. He says he came after a series of incidents in which he faced stricter discipline and more scrutiny than his colleagues.
“I was devastated,” Brown said. “I put so much time and effort into it… I felt like I finally got to a place where I was really getting into the groove.”
Brown claims that her firing was a result of her advocacy of gender-affirming care. When he was fired, he had started the process of gender-confirmation surgery.
“But it all stopped quickly,” she said.
“Sometimes we get a case and feel like the outcome was predetermined, and this was one of those cases,” said attorney Christina Abraham. She’s representing Brown in her lawsuit against the CTA and the union.
Abraham claims he targeted and discriminated against Brown for being transgender and for speaking out about inclusive healthcare.
“Very rarely do you get a situation where a manager is going to tell you, you’re in too much trouble, we’re going to get rid of you,” Abraham said. “They use a cover for discrimination or retaliation that appears to be procedurally OK. And that’s what I thought was happening here.
The CTA declined to talk about the case. The union did not respond to requests for comment.
In their responses to Brown’s lawsuit, both broadly deny his claims and argue that his firing and the representation he got from the union were fair.
The union denied that Brown reported harassment and threats against the union, denied that its chairman’s comments in the Facebook Live video were disparaging, and said the union never discriminated against anyone based on their gender or gender identity.
The CTA also said it did not engage in discrimination and said it did not have enough information about Brown’s allegations of harassment by colleagues and unfair discipline by management. The transit agency also stood by its decision to fire Brown for FMLA forgery.
But the issues in the case go beyond the legal issues.
Jae Rice is the 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 assistance can be life-saving for trans people—anything from a wig or haircut to surgery or mental health support.
“It’s not about hiding who we are, it’s about making who we are on the inside more aligned with how we present ourselves on the outside,” Rice said.
Proponents say it is crucial to the mental health of trans people. A 2019 study in the journal Transgender Health found that trans people were four times more likely to experience a mental health condition. Rice says that for Black trans people, things can be even more difficult.
“It’s maneuvering multiple forms of oppression on a daily basis and not really knowing why anyone hates you,” Rice said. “Is it because I’m trans? Is it because I’m black? Is it because I’m queer? What is today?”
Brown says she’s taking the challenges she’s faced one day at a time.
“Depression, you know, is present. It’s hard,” Brown said. “That’s not what I thought I was doing with my life. It’s not where I thought I was.
Despite losing his job, Brown says he hopes this lawsuit will make the CTA a more welcoming environment for trans workers.
“I think it’s important for everyone to stand up for them for themselves when they’ve been wronged, because how else do we change these systems?”
The case is directed to discovery, where all parties need to share relevant information and documentation. The lawsuit is set for a state hearing later this summer.
Note: This story will be updated with the video.
Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434| @ndblumberg