CHICAGO — There’s a woman’s restroom at the East Aurora Hobby Lobby where Meggan Sommerville works, but for 10 years, she’s been barred from using it because she is transgender.
She has had to punch out of work and cross a parking lot in the rain or snow to access the bathroom at a fast-food restaurant, she said. She has used the men’s room, which is shared by both employees and customers. She has restricted her fluid intake and endured dehydration, muscle cramps and headaches, according to court documents.
So when Sommerville contemplated the Illinois Appellate Court’s ruling that she had the right to use the women’s restroom at work, she paused, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Hobby Lobby could not be reached for comment. The company has the option of appealing the case to the Supreme Court of Illinois.
The Aug. 13 Appellate Court decision, which requires Hobby Lobby to allow Sommerville to use the women’s restroom and allows her to pursue $220,000 in damages awarded by the Illinois Human Rights Commission, is a “tremendous victory for the transgender community,” according to one of her lawyers, Jacob Meister of Chicago, who worked on the case with co-counsel Katherine Christy.
The court rejected Hobby Lobby’s argument that a person’s sex is determined by their reproductive organs and anatomy, and found that “Sommerville’s sex is unquestionably female.”
Sommerville’s battle began shortly after she completed her transition to living as a woman in July 2010, with a new name, Social Security card and driver’s license. Hobby Lobby, where she had worked since 1998, changed her personnel records to reflect her female gender but balked at what has become a flashpoint in the transgender culture wars: access to a gender-appropriate bathroom.
Sommerville was informed that she wouldn’t be able to use the women’s restroom, according to court records.
Hobby Lobby added a unisex bathroom in 2013 but continued to refuse Sommerville access to the women’s room.
The commission found Hobby Lobby violated the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in both workplaces and places of public accommodation, such as public restrooms. The commission determined that the company owed Sommerville $220,000 in damages, at the time the highest amount ever awarded by the commission for emotional distress.
Sommerville, who has worked at Hobby Lobby for 22 years, stayed on during the legal battle.
And besides, she said, she loves what she does. As the frame shop manager, she works one on one with clients, some of whom have been coming to her since before her male-to-female transition.
“They bring their artwork to me, all different types,” she said. “And they’re looking for my opinion, and to help them preserve their memories, and that’s a very rewarding job. I don’t want to give that up.”
There may be additional legal wrangling over the exact amount of financial damages, and Sommerville doesn’t know whether Hobby Lobby will pursue an appeal.
But on Tuesday, the signs were good.
Sommerville said when she came in to work, she was called into a manager’s office and told that from now on, she can use the women’s restroom. She kept her composure during the exchange she said, but when she left the office, she cried.
“I think I was more emotional hearing that than I was Friday,” she said, referring to the day the appellate court decision was released. “This really is over.”