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Fired worker awarded $30K after co-worker insisted on using wrong pronouns

VANCOUVER — A non-binary transgender restaurant employee in Gibsons who was fired after complaining to the owners about being called “she” and “sweetheart” by the bar manager has been awarded $30,000 by the B.C.

VANCOUVER — A non-binary transgender restaurant employee in Gibsons who was fired after complaining to the owners about being called “she” and “sweetheart” by the bar manager has been awarded $30,000 by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, which upheld a discrimination complaint.

The decision was the first involving a complaint by a non-binary transgender employee who uses gender-neutral (they/them) pronouns.

The “hefty” award is a “signal to employers,” said the complainant’s lawyer, Adrienne Smith. “It should be a signal that employers need to be respectful. Correct pronouns for individuals are not optional. Employers are not free to address people by the pronouns they choose to.”

Smith added, however, that “the employee didn’t get $30,000 because they were called by the wrong pronouns. They got the $30,000 because they were fired for being transgender.”

There has been a trend over the past five or six years that has seen human rights tribunals start to award higher amounts in cases involving “injuries to the dignity” of transgender people, Smith said.

Jessie Nelson worked for Buono Osteria for about four weeks in spring 2019. When Nelson started, they told the owners “how important it was to be properly gendered in the workplace.”

Bar manager Brian Gobelle used she/her pronouns with Nelson and called Nelson gendered nicknames, like “sweetheart, honey and pinky,” according to the decision. Nelson asked him to stop “and he did not.”

“Jessie Nelson felt that [the bar manager] was deliberately trying to hurt them,” tribunal member Devyn Cousineau said in the 42-page decision.

Tension escalated between the two and on Nelson’s last shift, Nelson wanted to confront Gobelle about his repeated inability to use their preferred pronouns. The tribunal heard conflicting versions of whether management advised Nelson not to speak with Gobelle, with management saying they told Nelson not to and promised to have a meeting all together to discuss the conflict.

But Cousineau accepted that Nelson wasn’t told not to speak with Gobelle directly. What happened after that confrontation, during which they discussed pronouns and language, also differed. Nelson said they put their hand on Gobelle’s shoulder in a “gentle touch” and said something “condescending and sarcastic to Mr. Gobelle.”

Gobelle said it was a “violent, physical assault,” which shocked him. Two other managers told the tribunal Gobelle was angry and swearing shortly after Nelson spoke with him about the pronoun issue and they then saw Nelson soon after slap him on the back and say, condescendingly, “see ya later, sweetie.”

Four days later, owner Ryan Kingsberry called Nelson to tell them they were being fired because they came on “too strong, too fast” and were too “militant.” And Nelson was told, “part of the problem is making sure you vibe with the team” and they weren’t “a good fit.”

The restaurant told the tribunal Nelson was fired for insubordination, for speaking to Gobelle the night of their last shift, and because they “assaulted” Gobelle.

Cousineau, in her decision, said she was “satisfied Mr. Gobelle’s conduct toward Jessie Nelson amounted to discrimination” because he persisted in using feminine pronouns and gendered nicknames.