Forcing Flight Attendants To Dress As Either Male Or Female Is Illegal

Justin Wetherell works as a flight attendant and flight-attendant instructor for Alaska Airlines, based in Seattle. For seven years, Wetherell has been greeting passengers, helping them with seating assignments and carry-on baggage, demonstrating how seatbelts and oxygen masks work and, of course, serving meals, drinks and contending with the occasional unruly or airsick passenger.

Wetherell does all this wearing the airline’s uniform for male flight attendants: a men’s shirt, tie, a pair of men’s pants and men’s shoes. But they are nonbinary, and so they have turned to the American Civil Liberties Union for help in ending what the organization calls “a uniform policy that requires flight attendants to conform to a rigid set of ‘male’ and ‘female’ dress and grooming standards.”

“When I am working as a flight-attendant instructor and allowed to wear regular business attire, I am not forced into Alaska Airlines’ ‘male’ or ‘female’ uniform policies—neither of which fit me because I am nonbinary,” Wetherell said in a statement to Forbes.com. “But when I work as a flight attendant, I am forced into one of two standards, often for up to four days at a time. I am willing to follow all of the elements of the uniform policy for professional attire, as I do when I work as an instructor, but I don’t want to be forced into a binary uniform that excludes me and leads to me being misgendered at work.”

On Friday, the ACLU sent a letter telling Alaska Airlines its uniform policy violates both the law in Washington State, which bans discrimination based on gender identity, appearance, behavior, or expression, as well as state and federal laws against sex discrimination.

“The uniform policy places a particularly heavy burden on nonbinary employees, but the uniform policy also harms any flight attendant who does not fit Alaska Airlines’ preferred image of either male or female,” said Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Jon L. Stryker and Slobodan Randjelović LGBTQ & HIV Project. “By forcing our client and countless other employees to adhere to Alaska Airlines’ rigid gender categories, the uniform policy demeans employees who do not conform to gender stereotypes and interferes with their ability to do their jobs.”

In January 2018, Alaska Airlines debuted its current employee uniforms at a fashion show of sorts in SeaTac, Wash. According to the airline, the Luly Yang designs were two years in the making and were rolled out to all 19,000 Alaska and Horizon Air uniformed employees starting in 2019.

The ACLU states the airline has every right to craft a uniform policy governing all aspects of a flight attendant’s appearance, but by strictly dictating that employees follow binary gender roles—either “male” or “female”—they’re breaking laws against discrimination based on sex. According to the organization, Alaska Airlines’ policy spells out “which pants and cardigans employees may wear, whether employees must wear their hair up or down, how many earrings employees are allowed to wear, whether employees may wear makeup or just concealer, and whether employees may roll up their sleeves.”

“Policing gender is always wrong and in many instances—including with Justin and Alaska Airlines—illegal,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which is also a signatory to the letter. “Alaska Airlines is free to adopt dress and grooming standards that present a consistent image for customers in terms of colors and style, as long as the standards are not based on characteristics protected by state and federal civil rights laws. But Washington state law prohibits companies from treating employees differently based on their sex, gender-related ‘appearance, behavior, or expression,’ including as part of its uniform. By creating different clothing standards based on sex and gender stereotypes, Alaska Airlines violates the law.”

Last month, Alaska Airlines debuted a specially-painted plane that highlights diversity, equity, and education, as Forbes.com’s Eric Rosen reported. That effort is aimed squarely at addressing racial inequality. In the statement provided by the ACLU, Wetherell quoted their employer’s claim to also be a “longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community… committed to building a more equitable society.”

“The company professes to create a welcoming environment for all employees,” said Wetherell. “It’s time to change this antiquated uniform policy, both in order to make good on this commitment and to end the discrimination I face along with many other employees.”

Alaska Airlines has been invited to comment on the ACLU’s letter and this story will be updated if/when the company responds.

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