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On Wednesday morning, Texas Department of Agriculture employees attended a mandatory training about equal employment opportunity led by an employment lawyer who teaches at Texas State University and served in the Navy. The training covered typical subjects for such meetings: discrimination, harassment and protected classes of employees.
At one point, the presenter broached the subject of gender identity, explaining concepts such as what makes someone “cisgender” or “transgender” and what it means to “deadname” someone, or intentionally use the name a person was given before their gender transition.
By Wednesday afternoon, the department wanted its employees to know it was sorry for the training, calling it “misinformation.”
Department leaders sent staff an email that accused the trainer of presenting a “biased view” of employment law that some TDA employees found offensive and contrary to their religious beliefs. The message, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, did not specify any particular aspects of the presentation other than that it was “with regard to the subject of gender.”
TDA is led by Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, an outspoken conservative Republican elected statewide who has been an eager combatant in the state’s political fights over the rights of transgender people.
In April, Miller ordered employees to dress “in a manner consistent with their biological gender.” Dress code violators will be asked to go home and change, according to the policy.
In 2021, Miller partnered with Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after the federal agency said transgender people should be allowed to use the bathrooms and locker rooms, and follow dress codes, that correspond with their gender identities. A federal district judge decided in the state’s favor, and the Biden administration eventually dropped its appeal.
Wednesday’s presenter, Natalie Rougeux, said in an email that she “simply gave the proper terminology for ‘transgender’ and ‘cisgender’ and explained the concept of ‘deadnaming.’”
“As an attorney with twenty years of experience who is Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and a certified Human Resources professional, I stand by the training and the subjects covered,” Rougeux said.
While there is an injunction against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on the issue, Rougeux said it does not stop people from making claims of gender-based harassment at work. And relevant court precedent could still change.
“Even as a conservative voter, I feel that it is prudent to briefly provide employees with the basic concepts of gender identity for their awareness,” Rougeux said. “There was no mandate given, and the training included many other topics of discrimination and harassment, including what it is and is not and how to report concerns of mistreatment or retaliation in the workplace.”
The inclusion of gender identity in the presentation apparently stunned TDA officials.
“The agency was taken by surprise by the inclusion of controversial and incorrect legal propositions and would like to correct the misinformation provided,” read the email. “The current law in Texas contrasts with the material presented with regard to the subject of gender.”
A TDA spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.
Attached to the staff email — “for more information” — was a December press release from the attorney general’s office. The release was about the Biden administration not appealing the court decision stemming from the state’s lawsuit.
Texas Republicans have targeted the rights of trans Texans for years. This legislative session, lawmakers banned puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans kids and restricted the college sports teams that athletes can join. Families with trans kids are suing to try and block the ban on transition-related care for minors going into effect Sept. 1.
TDA has little formal role in those fights — it’s responsible for promoting the state’s agriculture industry, running the state’s school lunch program and inspecting grocery store scales. But Miller has been outspoken about his agency’s employment policies.
“Just as I have successfully sued the Biden Administration over their proposed discriminatory farm loan program, I will continue to call out their proposed policies that would force citizens to say, speak or think a certain way on any subject or are in violation of our constitutional freedoms,” he said in a 2021 press release announcing the lawsuit against the EEOC. “I refuse to sit idly by while the rights of my fellow Texans are violated by an overbearing and encroaching federal bureaucracy.”
Wednesday’s training, attended by more than 100 TDA employees in Austin and others from field offices virtually, had been on staffers’ schedule for a while, according to one attendee, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation from their employer. Rougeux — whose “credentials were impeccable” — peppered the more than hourlong session with humor, and time passed quickly, the worker said.
“It was not something that I think most people, especially those of us that live in the Austin area, are not accustomed to hearing,” said the longtime TDA employee. “She’s coming from a standpoint like: If you have an employee or you have a co-worker who identifies as this, you should not treat them in any other way. You should just treat them as a normal human being, basically, and just don’t discriminate.”
Another attendee added, “I never enjoy those, they’re usually profoundly boring and mandatory. Actually, it was the best training.”
At the end, no one stood up to say anything negative when Rougeux asked for questions, the worker said. As the room cleared, some chatted about finding the presentation interesting. Others were interested in lunch.
Later in the afternoon, the email arrived in everyone’s inboxes.
The last line reiterated, “Again, please excuse the misinformation and any offense arising from today’s curriculum.”
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