CHAMPAIGN — A former Target employee is suing the company, alleging he was harassed by co-workers for not conforming to traditional gender stereotypes and ultimately fired.
Santiago Calle, 19, started working in September 2017 as a barista in the Starbucks at Target’s Champaign store in part because it has been a proponent of inclusivity; in 2016, it said transgender employees and guests were welcome to use whichever bathroom corresponds with their gender identity.
“I had enjoyed working there at first, for the first few months. The reason I had started working there is because they have claimed to be about acceptance and things like that,” Calle said. “After a few months, I started to realize that a lot of the employees and the management weren’t so accepting.”
In a lawsuit filed last month, Calle is accusing Target of violating Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees from discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
“It’s discrimination based upon gender and based upon the fact that he’s of a perceived-as class,” said his lawyer, Urbana attorney Ron Langacker. “If you don’t quite fit into what people would perceive as something that’s acceptable, that’s when you start to see discrimination occur. And that’s something that the law in Title 7 tries to prevent.”
Calle said he doesn’t always conform to stereotypical male standards.
“I’ve always enjoyed having long hair, and just the way I present myself is not very male-like, but this has always been me,” Calle told The News-Gazette. “Me having long hair and painting my nails doesn’t prevent me from doing my job correctly. It’s just the way that I choose to look.”
Because of this, Calle said his coworkers “perceived him as being homosexual” and used homophobic slurs toward him.
Calle also alleges his supervisor required him to perform tasks outside his job description that “were considered to be masculine in nature, such as lifting heavy products and retrieving carts.”
After Calle said he raised the alleged harassment with management, his suit alleges he was given a last-chance agreement in October 2018 for “allegedly ‘creating too much drama.’”
Two months later, Calle was terminated, “allegedly due to a customer complaint,” according to the suit, though Calle said he never got to see a copy of the comment card.
“He tried to address the situation with the employer, and not only did they not ever address the situation, but they retaliated against him by giving him what was in its essence a last-chance agreement, and then terminating him for reasons that are dubious at best,” Langacker said.
In a statement provided by spokeswoman Danielle Schumann, Target said Calle’s claims are unfounded.
“Target has a longstanding commitment to building diverse teams and creating a work environment where all differences are valued. We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind, and after a thorough investigation, found no evidence to support these claims,” the statement said. “As we’ve shared with Santiago, the termination decision was for performance reasons completely unrelated to these claims.”
Calle defended his work performance.
“Most customers liked me. I’m very sociable, and that’s why I enjoyed working there, because I enjoyed all the people — the customers and a lot of the people that I worked with,” he said.
After being fired, Calle filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which issued him a “right to sue” notice in October.
Since he was terminated, Calle said he’s found a new job he enjoys at another coffee shop.
“I see a lot of people from Target, like customers, and they’re always like, ‘Oh my gosh, how have you been?’ and things like that,” Calle said.
Calle said people his age have been more accepting of him than older adults.
“A lot of people my age are more accepting,” he said. But “no matter what age, you’re able to educate yourself on what’s right and wrong, and people know what right and wrong is.”