The former employees say they’re pleased with policy changes that have followed their equal employment opportunity complaints but want more action and accountability
DALLAS — At least four former Dallas Arboretum workers have filed equal employment opportunity complaints against their former employer in the past year, alleging that management fostered a culture of discrimination around gender identity and sexuality.
In interviews with WFAA, two of the former employees say they’re thankful for recent changes that the arboretum has made following the complaints, but also say they believe more must be done to create an inclusive environment — including better holding leadership accountable.
One former employee, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because their family isn’t aware of their non-binary gender identity, filed their complaint in late November of last year, alleging that, despite strong job performance, they were fired over disputes about using gender-inclusive pronouns in their email signatures and at work.
The worker oversaw the Children’s Garden and its staff of around 15 people, and taught STEM-focused lessons to children.
“I love the ‘a-ha’ moments,” they said. “There’s something about being able to work with youth, and being able to share with them this passion for learning. It’s just a very powerful opportunity to impact future generations.”
The arboretum, the former employee said, was also the first workplace where they felt comfortable enough to come out to co-workers. But they said that, after they were promoted to a managerial role and interactions with upper management became more common, they began to experience direct discrimination relating to their gender.
“I kept getting pushback — it felt like every step of the way — once I started having to interact with upper-level management,” they said. “And that’s when the problems started.”
In fall of 2020, the former employee began putting their preferred pronouns of she/her and they/them in their email signature. Soon after, a manager sent a letter to employees saying that they all needed to use the standard Dallas Arboretum in their email signatures, and that pronouns were not allowed in that context.
The former employee said other workers, including Dallas Arboretum leadership, continued to use quotes and bible verse in signatures — additions not in line with the standard signature, the employee said. So, in turn, they continued to use their pronouns in signatures on emails to external clients.
“I will admit that I didn’t tell them I was doing it,” the former employee said. “But I was doing it for reasons that were very, very, deeply personal and important to me — because being misgendered is so harmful. It’s like a wound that keeps getting picked at.”
The former employee and other coworkers of theirs also began wearing pronouns pins — after which they say they began to be disciplined for issues that hadn’t been brought up before. Eventually, the former employee’s complaint reads, the staff was told during a meeting with managers that “the arboretum is a ‘conservative institution,'” and that its staff “could not ‘promote an agenda.'”
The arboretum is mostly funded through donations.
“I was told that the arboretum has to be careful about what we chose to do — because donors are who pay our paycheck,” the former employee said. “To get to the point where I’m being asked to erase any outward part of my gender identity was so heartbreaking.”
Soon after that meeting with managers — during which the former employee became emotional over the pronoun policy change — they were fired.
“I was devastated, and that’s to say it lightly,” the former employee said.
The City of Dallas owns the arboretum, which attracts over one million guests a year. But management of the facility is contracted out to a third party. Because Dallas City Code bans discrimination around sexual orientation and gender identity, any discrimination found in the workplace at the arboretum could potentially put any third party contract in jeopardy.
In a statement to the media, the arboretum said it couldn’t comment on the EEOC complaints against them, but did say that the organization was “sad that an employee would feel they had been treated unfairly and will thoroughly investigate the allegations made in the Charges of Discrimination.”
In May, another employee named David Jeffcoat filed a similar EEOC complaint to that of the first employee, alleging that he was fired from the Dallas Arboretum for being gay.
“I didn’t want it to continue,” Jeffcoat told WFAA about his reason for filing his complaint. “And I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
For seven years, Jeffcoat worked as a gate attendant at the Dallas Arboretum. He said he never mentioned the fact that he was gay until late 2021, when he had to tell his bosses his husband had tested positive for COVID-19. Jeffcoat said he noticed a sudden change in tone from managers after sharing that bit of personal information, and that he began to be disciplined for issues relating to his job that hadn’t been brought up before. His workload in a new management role was also increased to levels he believed were purposefully set beyond realistic expectations, in the hopes that he would fail.
“They were trying to come up with a reason to terminate me,” Jeffcoat said. “They gave me a performance review and stated these things that I had done, but they had never said anything to me about them.”
Jeffcoat said he was eventually was fired after he hurt his back slipping on ice following an ice storm in February and had to miss work due to a physical therapy appointment.
“Defeated, disgusted,” Jeffcoat said of how he felt in the wake of his firing. “I thought I had worked pretty good for them. I feel kind of robbed of the situation.”
In June, following the accumulating EEOC complaints and a letter of concern sent by the Dallas-based LGBTQ support organization Resource Center, Dallas Arboretum board chairman Jim Ryan announced actions for the organization to be more inclusive moving forward.
“Our goal is to make the arboretum a better place when we work though all this than it was when it started,” Ryan told WFAA in June.
The changes implemented in the wake of that change include updating the arboretum’s equity statement, adjusting the employee manual to be consistent with City of Dallas requirements and the addition of mandatory diversity training.
The arboretum will also now allow pronouns in email signatures moving forward.
“It’s hard to see that they were not willing to make these changes until we spoke up,” the anonymous former employee WFAA spoke with said. “It took people coming forward, sharing their stories, to get the needle to start moving forward.”
Both former employees WFAA spoke with said they are thankful wheels are turning — although both added that they believe pruning out the discrimination will take continued tending.
“I’d have to see it to believe it,” Jeffcoat said. “I had a lot of friends out there. I probably won’t ever return to see any of them.”
Another one of the changes the Dallas Arboretum laid out in its June plans? A ‘Work Culture Assessment’ in which is promises to interview employees and get feedback on the changes being implemented in the workplace.
To hear the EEOC complainants that WFAA spoke with tell it, though, they feel upper management is to blame for the lack of inclusivity at the arboretum.
“I’m just really looking forward to seeing this place that I loved and worked at for so long make actual change and hold people accountable for the harm that they caused,” the anonymous former employee WFAA spoke with said. “We need to see that leadership is accountable for the past harm that they’ve caused — and prevent them from being able to cause any future harm.”