Updated:September 30, 2021
A former server at a Gibsons, B.C. restaurant has been awarded $30,000 after a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal decision found they were unfairly terminated for asking managers and co-workers to call them by their proper pronouns.
The decision, by the tribunal’s Devyn Cousineau, found that Jessie Nelson, a non‐binary, gender fluid, transgender person who uses they/them pronouns, was terminated because of “how they responded to discrimination” from their employer and a colleague.
In 2019, Nelson was hired as a server at Buono Osteria, a restaurant run by Michael Buono and Ryan Kingsberry in Gibsons, on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. The 42-page decision describes a work environment where some colleagues respected Nelson’s pronouns, while others were unhappy when they raised issues about inclusion.
The decision says bar manager Brian Gobelle was particularly hostile, repeatedly and persistently referring to Nelson with she/her pronouns and with gendered nicknames like “sweetheart,” “honey,” and “pinky” — a reference to their pink hair.
The situation eventually escalated into a verbal altercation between Nelson and Gobelle, during which Nelson touched Gobelle’s shoulder and called him “sweetheart” in return — though Cousineau determined this did not amount to a physical assault.
Termination after tensions rose
Four days later, Nelson was told over the phone they were being terminated, a conversation that was overheard by co-worker Stacy Coplin.
“Eventually [Kingsberry] told Jessie Nelson that they had just come off ‘too strong too fast’ and were too ‘militant’ — a word that reminded Jessie Nelson of what Mr. Gobelle had said about them,” Cousineau wrote.
“They challenged Mr. Kingsberry that they were being fired because of their pronouns. Ms. Coplin recalls Mr. Kingsberry telling Jessie Nelson that ‘part of the problem is making sure you vibe with the team,’ and that they had made people uncomfortable.”
According to the decision, Kingsberry did not say that Nelson’s termination had anything to do with their final conflict with Gobelle or the restaurant’s view that Nelson had assaulted him. There was also no complaint about their performance.
Following their termination, Nelson alleged that Gobelle’s conduct towards them, and the employer’s response, amounted to discrimination in employment based on their gender identity and expression.
In her decision, Cousineau wrote that “like a name, pronouns are a fundamental part of a person’s identity. They are a primary way that people identify each other.”
“Using correct pronouns communicates that we see and respect a person for who they are. Especially for trans, non‐binary, or other non‐cisgender people, using the correct pronouns validates and affirms they are a person equally deserving of respect and dignity.”
Mandatory training ordered
Cousineau found that while managers at the restaurant seemed committed to providing an inclusive workplace, their response to Nelson’s complaints lacked any sense of urgency.
“This suggests that they did not appreciate how serious those complaints were. I have a hard time imagining that the restaurant would have responded in the same way to other serious complaints of discrimination,” she wrote.
“There is a clear connection between Jessie Nelson’s gender identity and their termination. They were terminated because of how they responded to discrimination. They were held to a higher standard of conduct than Mr. Gobelle, and the discriminatory context of the dispute was ignored.”
Buono Osteria has been ordered to implement mandatory training for all staff and managers about human rights in the workplace, and to include a statement in its employee policies that affirms every employee’s right to be addressed with their correct pronouns.
CBC News was unable to reach the restaurant for comment.