Ex-Lujan Grisham intern says she was fired for being transgender - Albuquerque Journal

Ex-Lujan Grisham intern says she was fired for being transgender

Riley Del Rey, top left, poses for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute intern group photograph. (Courtesy Riley Del Rey)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., is disputing claims by a New Mexico transgender woman that he outed her to Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, which the woman says led to her dismissal as a congressional intern for Lujan Grisham two years ago.

Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., denies any claims of discrimination and says she didn’t even know the intern was transgender until after she left the office.

Riley Del Rey this week entered the public fray involving sexual discrimination and harassment allegations when she claimed she was discriminated against and was fired from her Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute internship. Del Rey contends she was forced to leave the prestigious post after she confided to Honda, who has a transgender granddaughter, that she herself was transgender. She says she suspects that he, in turn, told Lujan Grisham and that led to her being fired.

The institute manages a congressional internship program and places the interns in the offices of members of Congress.

Riley Del Rey

Del Rey (who went by Riley Golightly when she was a congressional intern) told the Journal she decided to go public with her allegations when she read about Lujan Grisham’s call for New Mexico Sen. Michael Padilla to exit the lieutenant governor race over sexual harassment allegations. Del Rey said Lujan Grisham’s stance was hypocritical.

She took her story to local media and has posted a YouTube video about the matter.

Del Rey told the Journal she believes Honda spoke to Lujan Grisham after she met him and disclosed information about her transgender status. Del Rey said a top Lujan Grisham staffer told her afterward that she was not a “regular intern,” and that she was being fired because she “couldn’t be trusted,” although she said the staffer did not mention her transgender status as being a factor in her dismissal.

Reached by phone late Monday, Honda – who earned a reputation as a staunch defender of LGBT rights during his 17-year tenure in Congress – confirmed that Del Rey disclosed her transgender status to him at a Capitol Hill reception. But he denied telling Lujan Grisham or anyone at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

“Why would I?” Honda asked. “That was something that she said to me, and because of the sensitivity about it – and even with my own granddaughter – we don’t talk about it without her permission.”

Lujan Grisham’s office issued a statement saying it was stunned by Del Rey’s allegation.

“Our office takes the rights of the LGBT community very seriously and we are dumbfounded by any suggestion that we would discriminate against anyone for any reason,” the office said in a statement. “Our office treats every person who interacts with our office with dignity and respect, regardless of their LGBTQ status, age, national origin, religion, disability, political orientation or any other factor.”

Appearance criticized

Del Rey said that during her brief internship, managers at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute would routinely criticize her appearance – her high heels, color of lipstick and the hemline on her skirts, all of which she said she toned down after hearing complaints. She said she did not disclose her transgender status out of fear that she would be discriminated against.

Del Rey, a Lovington native who has since graduated from the University of New Mexico and taken a job with a law firm in Albuquerque, said she was shocked when she was asked to turn in her security badge and leave Lujan Grisham’s Capitol Hill office.

“I felt like I was doing a good job; they just didn’t like what I looked like,” Del Rey said. “They didn’t like my presentation. They never addressed any performance standards except my appearance.”

Among the top four suggestions for interns on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute website is: “Dress for success. Take cues from your co-workers and dress appropriately.”

The institute and Lujan Grisham’s office – beyond denying Del Rey’s allegation of discrimination – declined to comment about her tenure on Capitol Hill to the Journal, saying personnel issues are confidential. But the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute also said the organization did not know she was transgender until after she left.

“CHCI is an equal opportunity employer and treats all persons, whether LGBTQ or otherwise, equally,” CHCI said in a statement. “It does not require any disclosure of LGBTQ status from any of its interns or employees. Ms. Del Rey was an intern in CHCI’s Spring 2015 internship program for approximately two weeks but did not complete the program. For the benefit of our interns and employee’s confidentiality, CHCI does not publicly discuss human resource matters.”

Lujan Grisham’s office said the congresswoman is “a leader in Congress and in New Mexico for LGBTQ rights.”

“Throughout her career, she has worked to repeal discriminatory laws, eliminate hate-motivated violence, and improve the health and well-being of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the statement from her office said.

‘Taking a risk’

According to emails provided to the Journal by Del Rey, she was summoned to a meeting on March 18 to discuss her office performance. Del Rey says a Lujan Grisham staffer and two program managers for the institute were also present at the meeting.

Del Rey said she was told that Lujan Grisham had been “caught off guard” by members of Congress who mentioned Del Rey’s name to her in a discussion on the House floor, but that there was no specific mention of her transgender status.

But Del Rey told the Journal that a few days before that meeting she had disclosed her transgender status to Honda, who lost his re-election bid in 2016.

Del Rey’s emails show that after her dismissal, institute managers asked her to write a separation letter to Lujan Grisham and her staff. In an initial draft of the letter, Del Rey expresses concern about the difficulties faced by transgender people.

“I was taking a risk (by taking the internship) and may have been perceived as a threat or discriminated against, as other transgender people experience in public spaces,” Del Rey wrote.

Crista Arias, the institute’s manager of recruitment strategy, told her in an email reviewed by the Journal to edit the letter because “this isn’t the letter to put in your concerns leading to your dismissal. You can do that privately if you like.”

Arias did not return messages seeking comment.

Del Rey then said she was pressured to write a different letter that apologized for her “unprofessional” behavior in the job.

“I acknowledge that my behavior was unprofessional and unacceptable,” Del Rey wrote in the letter obtained by the Journal that was sent to Lujan Grisham and her staff. “I profusely apologize if I brought about shame, embarrassment or worry to the office as it was never my intention.”

Del Rey said she chose not to talk about her experience sooner because she felt traumatized by it and she was worried about being targeted for violence if she made her transgender status public. She said she never filed a formal complaint because she didn’t know how.

“We were never trained to report harassment, or how to report it,” Del Rey said.

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