Lizzi Duff (center) protests outside Peoples Bank in Ballard on Saturday, June 27, with more than a dozen supporters. Photo by Eric Mandel
Lizzi Duff (center) protests outside Peoples Bank in Ballard on Saturday, June 27, with more than a dozen supporters. Photo by Eric Mandel
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The Seattle Office for Civil Rights is investigating a claim by a transgender woman from Magnolia who says she was voice-profiled and denied access to her own bank account.

Lizzi Duff, a Magnolia resident for 12 years, claimed the bank in Magnolia refused her service because she is a transgender woman and that the bank has refused her request for the business to provide bank-wide transgender sensitivity training from the Gender Justice League.

Members of the Gender Justice League, Seattle Solidarity Network, Radical Women and Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity picketed Peoples Bank in Ballard on June 6. Duff said the picketing at the Ballard branch lasted for two hours and included 35 people.

“We want Peoples Bank exposed as a trans-phobic bank,” Duff said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”

 

Voice profiling

Duff, a contract caregiver, said she’d banked at the Magnolia branch (3300 W. McGraw St.) for more than two years before changing her name and gender marker last September. 

Duff said she’d provided the bank updates copies of her new driver’s license and updated photo. But when she called in for an update on her account balance, she ran into new issues. 

The bank representative, according to Duff, asked her multiple security questions, all of which she answered correctly. Despite that, Duff said, she was placed on hold so that she could be forwarded to a manager.

“That hold became a permanent hold,” Duff said.

Duff called back and was told that the bank wouldn’t provide any information over the phone because the account was listed as Lizzi Duff, female.  

“I said, ‘That’s me: Lizzi Duff, female,’” Duff said. “Me answering all my security questions should prove that it’s me.”

Duff claims the bank representative hung up on her and that she called back a third time, only to go through another half-dozen security questions. She said she was finally allowed to access her account after relaying her driver’s license number.

“It was absolute humiliation,” she said. “I was really angry and upset and humiliated.”

Duff said she met with the Magnolia office manager and requested that Peoples Bank staff partake in trangender sensitivity training through the Gender Justice League. Duff called the Peoples Bank culture “trans-ignorant” and “transphobic.”

Duff said she never received an apology and has been “stonewalled” for six months, with no substantive replies on calls or letters to the bank from her or Gender Justice League executive director Dani Askini. 

Amy Esary, vice president and director of marketing at Peoples Banks, said the bank is actively working with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) and couldn’t make specific comments until SOCR had completed its evaluation. She added that customer confidentiality kept her from speaking about specific customers, but that the bank became aware of the complaint Duff filed in April and immediately began communicating and cooperating with SOCR. 

“Our goal and hope is we would resolve the matter fairly and quickly through the channel that she has chosen,” Esary said.

Esary stated that the bank values diversity in its employees and customers, with inclusion being a main component in its business and culture. She specifically noted that the bank, headquartered in Bellingham, works with Bellingham Pride, a nonprofit LGBT organization that holds a parade in July.

Esary said, as part of its best business practices, the bank has engaged outside specialists to provide training to “key personnel.” Esary declined to specify whom that training would be for or what the training would include.

“We have often used outside trainers for many scenarios for many years,” she said. “We are a bank that utilizes specialists in their fields frequently.”

 

Preponderance of evidence

SOCR investigates discrimination claims in areas that include employment, fair contracting and housing. If the organization feels the person’s account of events meets the definition of discrimination, he or she can file the allegation as an official charge. 

Much like in a civil case, the investigation is looking for a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning likelier than not that discrimination occurred. If the parties can’t agree to a predetermination settlement, the investigator will issue a finding, which could include monetary components, training or changing policies.

Duff said she is not looking for any money — only an apology and training for bank employees.

“I want to change the culture,” she said.

SOCR spokesperson Elliott Bronstein said he couldn’t comment about the case since it’s an open investigation. He said cases can take several months to complete and that the settlement rate is between 20 and 30 percent.

Bronstein said transgender cases are not often filed, but that the city explicitly added gender identity to one of the protected groups in 1999; prior to that, gender identity was mixed in with sexual orientation.

 

Being misgendered

Duff believes the employee profiled her voice as a man’s, which is why so many additional security questions were asked.

“Voice profiling is a common and a really hateful way of discriminating against transgender people and attacking our right to be on the planet,” she said.

Askini said the Gender Justice League strongly supports Duff, saying, “Transgender people, like everyone else, should be able to prove who they are by means other than the pitch and resonance of their voice. Lizzi successfully answered all security challenge questions, and any reasonable person would expect to have access to their account after doing so. Businesses in Washington state have an obligation under state law to not discriminate; we believe this is a clear case of discrimination against Lizzi.”

Duff said being misgendered or actively discriminated against is an “attack on our existence. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing no reflection.”

Duff said she’d known for about two years that she’d needed to change her name and gender marker to “live my life authentically.” She said she understood the transition would have a large impact on her life but didn’t realize everything that came with it.

“I failed to realize how much hate it would bring to me — hateful reactions,” she said. “I don’t feel safe. It’s really a perilous life to be a transgender person in Seattle…. Seattle has a phony reputation of being liberal and accepting.”

Askini said a lack of awareness and understanding about transgender people often leads to serious bias and discrimination. She acknowledged that businesses must make policies to protect the integrity of its clients’ accounts, but that applying those policies in a differential fashion is illegal.

“Disbelieving someone who states they are transgender is a form of discrimination,” she said. “Washington state is home to one of the largest transgender populations in the country, and it is not unusual or odd to hear from transgender people that they are profiled, disbelieved and discriminated against simply for being who they are.”

Duff said retelling the story is “exhausting” and forces her to relive the trauma, but she feels it important to give back to the transgender community that came before her. 

“Our demand is still out there, and we’re not going away,” she said.

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