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American Civil Liberties Union

Peter Oiler was fired solely because he was a cross-dresser, the ACLU told a judge
New Orleans, Louisiana-- Southern grocery giant Winn-Dixie plainly concedes that its sole reason for firing an employee of two decades was that off-duty he sometimes cross-dressed as a woman, the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal judge today in papers seeking a ruling without a trial in its sex discrimination lawsuit against the company.

"We don't need a trial, because there's no disagreement over what happened. The only disagreement is whether it's legal to fire someone for this," said Ken Choe, the ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights staff attorney handling the case.

Peter Oiler was fired on January 5, 2000, after his supervisors and company executives learned that he occasionally cross-dresses as a woman away from work. Oiler and his wife, Shirley, who will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on February 4, lost their health insurance and nearly lost their home.

In October 2000, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on Oiler's behalf, claiming that Winn-Dixie engaged in sex stereotyping in violation of state and federal laws that bar sex discrimination.

Choe said that over the last few months the ACLU has deposed the men who fired Oiler and has determined that there is no dispute that would require a trial. "They are very clear that he wasn't fired for job performance -- in fact he received numerous raises and promotions," Choe said.

Yesterday's Motion for Summary Judgment cites Winn-Dixie Louisiana President Michael Istre's sworn deposition saying that he made the decision to fire Oiler and that the sole reason was that Oiler didn't conform to the company's stereotyped notions of how a man should look, dress and act.

An excerpt of that deposition, taken December 11:

Q: Please tell me why Mr. Oiler was terminated.

A: I was concerned about my business and what kind of impact and effect that this - this type of behavior would have on my business and my customer base that if my customers saw him that we have got - and that's pretty much it. Why - the reason why was because of my business, what kind of effect it would have on my customer base.

Q: Was there any other reason why you terminated Mr. Oiler?

A: No.

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The ACLU cited a sworn deposition from Oiler's supervisor, Gregory Miles, who said Oiler was fired because members of the public who saw Oiler cross-dressed away from work would somehow "put two and two together" and associate him with Winn-Dixie. This, he speculated, could cause people to think Winn-Dixie approved of Oiler's personal life, and might lead people to buy groceries elsewhere.

Winn-Dixie will have until February 22 to reply to yesterday's motion. A hearing is set for April 10 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The case is Peter Oiler v. Winn-Dixie Louisiana, Civil Action No. 00-3114 (Sect. L, Mag. 3).