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Oklahoma transgender professor awarded $1.1 million in landmark case

OKLAHOMA CITY - A transgender professor whose tenure and promotion was denied at Southeastern Oklahoma State University has been awarded $1.1 million by a federal jury in a landmark Title VII case.

Dr. Rachel Tudor was hired by the Durant university in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English department, according to the lawsuit filed in Oklahoma District Court. At the time, she presented as a man and went by a traditionally male name; however, in the summer of 2007, Tudor notified the school she planned to transition from male to female and would begin presenting as a woman at work during the 2007-2008 academic school year.

Tudor had received a phone call from an unnamed employee of Southeastern's human resources office to discuss various issues related to her gender transition.

According to court documents, Tudor was warned by the employee that the university's vice president for Academic Affairs, Douglas McMillan, had inquired whether Tudor could be fired because her "transgender lifestyle offended his beliefs."

The lawsuit further alleged after Dr. Tudor began presenting as a woman, Vice President McMillan's sister Jane McMillian told her [Tudor] to take safety precautions because some people were openly hostile towards transgender people. McMillan, who served as director of Southeastern's Counseling Center, said her brother considered transgender people to be a "grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities".

Tudor was told McMillan could not fire her because she was transgender.​

The lawsuit claimed Tudor applied for tenure and a promotion in October 2009 and was denied, while the application of a similarly qualified male coworker was approved. After asking for an explanation, McMillan and another dean refused to provide her with one.

"Dr. Tudor had to go through every hurdle anybody could have possibly put up. It’s been a decade of just hardship after hardship after hardship," said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. "I’m surprised it took this long to get here. It was a really clear cut case of discrimination."

The federal discrimination complaint was filed in 2010. Tudor was fired in 2011 before the Justice Department officially sued the university in March 2015.

Brittany Novotny is a former board member of Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ advocacy group. According to Stevenson, she was the local counsel on the case.​

"She [Tudor] was told to be given tenure by the board and it was the university itself that denied her that tenure, which is just unprecedented. It’s unheard of, you don’t do that. That’s what made it such a blatant case of discrimination," Stevenson said.

On Monday, a jury voted in favor of Tudor and awarded her $1.1 million. Tudor's attorney Ezra Young tells News 4 they are asking the court to allow her to return to Southeastern with tenure. Court filings will begin in December.

"I want to thank the jury for being fair, impartial and deciding the case on its merits," Tudor said in a statement.

Stevenson said the entire case sends a message of hope.

"In many ways, people try to give Oklahoma a bad reputation for discrimination and for bias, but I think this sent a clear message that this unanimous, entire jury said we’re not going to allow people to treat others this way," he said. "That’s not the Oklahoma standard."

In response to the verdict, Southeastern president Sean Burrage offered a brief statement:

“Southeastern Oklahoma State University places great trust in the judicial system and respects the verdict rendered today by the jury. It has been our position throughout this process that the legal system would handle this matter, while the University continues to focus its time and energy on educating students. All legal questions should be directed to the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General.”