Five transgender and gender non-conforming people have sued Texas Chicken & Burgers charging they were effectively refused service at one of the chain’s Manhattan locations this past spring because, they believe, they are transgender and gender non-conforming.
“These folks are demanding to be heard,” said Gennaro Savastano, an associate in the appellate unit at Weitz & Luxenberg, a law firm, and president of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York. “This sort of bravery is exactly what we need at this moment… New York has zero tolerance for transphobia and homophobia.”
The group visited the chain’s outlet on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem on May 27. Daniele Marino first attempted to order for the group and was ignored, then Deja Smith tried to order and received the same response. Eventually, an employee told the group that there was “no chicken” in the restaurant despite cooked chicken being visible behind the counter.
“We were told that there was no chicken,” Smith said during an August 9 press conference that was held across the street from the Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riots that mark the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. “We were told that there were no chicken tenders.”
A white cisgender man then stepped to the counter and ordered chicken and was served chicken. While he told the group that he had been served chicken, he also told them he did not want to get involved. At that point, Smith used her phone to record a two-minute video in which the white cisgender man confirmed that he had been served chicken and a young Asian woman appeared to be volunteering to assist the group.
“I don’t know why it is that when we went to the register there was no chicken, but when that young man right there went to the register there was chicken,” Smith can be heard saying in the video.
A man behind the counter waved his hand and said, “No video” when asked if he had just told the group there was no chicken in the restaurant.
On May 29, the company posted a statement on Instagram.
“We take all concerns raised by our customers very seriously, just as we take our obligation to treat our customers, employees, and other stakeholders with the utmost degree of respect in an environment free of any form of discrimination,” the company said.
The statement added, “While we regret that our customer did not receive the level of service we would expect from all employees… after a thorough and swift review of the situation, we are confident that the situation was caused by an honest mistake made by the employee when stating that particular food items were sold out, and not the product of any intentional discriminatory treatment as it is portrayed in the video.”
The lawsuit was filed in state court in Manhattan on August 9. Reached by phone, Waheed Khosdal, the chief operating officer at Texas Chicken & Burgers, said, “We haven’t been served with anything so I can’t make any comment.”
The suit alleges that Texas Chicken & Burgers violated the city and state human rights laws when it refused to serve the group because they are transgender and gender non-conforming. The city human rights law has barred discrimination based on gender identity since 2002. In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo used an executive directive adding gender identity as a protected class to the state law.
Jahmila Adderley, Jonovia Chase, and Valerie Spencer are the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Spencer lives in Los Angeles and did not attend the August 9 press conference.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump is working on the lawsuit with Weitz & Luxenberg. He flew from his office in Florida to attend the August 9 press conference. Referring to the May 29 statement by Texas Chicken & Burgers, Crump said, “It really was a very poor excuse.”
Recalling past scenes of civil rights activists who have prompted action to promote or defend civil rights, Crump added, “We’re going to see if the transgender community can get justice when it’s on video.”