Erin Emily Dwyer likes the sound of her first two names. She should; she picked them herself 10 months ago.
Eleven months ago, she was a man.
Last January — a month after she stopped being a he called Neil — the recently named Erin Emily filed a discrimination complaint against Yale, claiming 15 years of homophobic violence, verbal abuse, and discrimination from co-workers and supervisors alike.
If her story is true, Yale’s nationally touted liberalism seems to end at the dining hall door.
If it is not, then Dwyer has contrived an elaborate vengeance upon dozens of former acquaintances.
As long as the neighbors don’t see
Dwyer, a pre-operative transsexual, said that she has known she was not truly male since she was 3 years old. It’s something she’s never been able to overlook.
“You remember going into your mother’s closet and trying on your mother’s clothes,” she said.
“My parents were really accepting of it. They let me walk around the house in women’s clothing, wearing makeup. It was always, ‘as long as the neighbors don’t see.’ And these were the Eisenhower years, you have to remember; it was a conservative time.”
She said she doesn’t remember being hazed while growing up, in college, at any time really, until she came to Yale.
Before beginning “female-level” monthly estrogen doses last December and legally changing her name and gender, Dwyer’s full name was Neil Eckels. Eckels was a high school graduate, a student at the University of New Haven, interested in “the arts, symphony, and discussions of topical issues and speakers.”
Eckels came to work cleaning pools at Payne Whitney Gymnasium in 1985. Dwyer said she came for the proximity to culture on Yale’s campus, and for the health care benefits.
“The only reason I have suffered this abuse for 15 years is for the medical coverage,” she said.
Her monthly estrogen bill runs $300, which the Yale employee health plan covers for her because she began the estrogen program before they decided to stop covering it.
Her sexual reassignment surgery (S.R.S.), if she ever gets it, will cost $10,000 and require three months for recuperation, she said. She can afford neither right now. She said she can’t even afford a lawyer.
She says now, in e-mails and in conversation, that she is miserable after 15 years of Yale employment.
“My thoughts now are that I wish I could stop pursuing S.R.S. and go back to the way I was,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I hate the person I am now and the personality change for the worse.
“I am a shadow of what I once was and a caricature of what I wanted to become. If I could just quit pursuing the S.R.S., then perhaps I could leave Yale and all this abuse and find something satisfying for work on the outside.”
Fifteen years of abuse?
“They say that Yale is a liberal institution,” Dwyer said. “Well, not from where I am viewing it.”
According to the affidavit of illegal discriminatory practice Dwyer filed in January, the harassment began when she was working as a groundskeeper in 1985.
“One day [gardener Tom] Gaudioso came up behind me while I was seated and held a knife to my throat and stated I should perhaps quit Yale for my health,” Dwyer said. “He said people like me are not wanted at Yale.”
Gaudioso, like all the individuals named in the affidavit who agreed to comment, vehemently denied the allegations.
“Are you kidding me?” Gaudioso said when asked to comment on the allegations. “I haven’t heard anything about this, but I’ve never held a knife to anyone’s throat.”
Calling Dwyer’s statements sick, Gaudioso could only speculate that Dwyer “must be going through something, I don’t know what it is, some kind of problem or whatever, to make a claim of something like that.”
While Gaudioso confirms he worked with Dwyer in grounds maintenance, he said that “as far as any gay tendencies, I never knew any of that stuff.”
“I haven’t even talked to the guy in years; the last time I saw him was in one of the dining halls,” Gaudioso said. “We had a normal conversation. It’s unbelievable, totally unbelievable. I’m shocked that he would make a claim like that.”
During her employment at the athletic fields, Dwyer claimed her car was vandalized and that other employees repeatedly asked if she was a “faggot.”
Throughout her time at Yale, Dwyer said she always received at least satisfactory evaluations.
While working as a gardener, Dwyer said she passed the test for a promotion but was not awarded the job. She claims that she then filed a grievance, but that nothing was done.
After transferring to the Branford College dining hall, Dining Services Manager Susan Shand told Dwyer that she did not need to attend one of the “family meetings” for dining hall workers, Dwyer said.
At the meeting, Dwyer claims, Shand and Branford/Saybrook dining hall manager Marie Pascale said Dwyer was “an alcoholic, a drug addict, a poor worker, a trouble maker and gay,” and said they were going to fire her.
Shand said she was unable to comment.
“Many times,” said Dwyer. “[Her co-workers] told [her] that God was going to send [her] straight to hell for being a faggot and that [she] should get [her] hair cut, find a girl, and get married and have children.
“In September-November the harassment became too much for me to bear any longer, and I feared for my life and began carrying pepper spray to ward off the attack I was sure was coming,” Dwyer explained. “I couldn’t sleep at night and could not concentrate on my work during the day.”
Dwyer said Pascale told her she did not care what the other workers were doing, and that Dining Hall Services, the Yale Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the union did not help.
Dwyer left the Saybrook/Branford dining halls for the Morse/Stiles dining halls, where she said that she “was harassed and demeaned by some of the employees.”
“There were comments such as, ‘He is already an ugly man, why would he want to become an ugly woman,'” Dwyer said.
She tried to transfer to Berkeley dining hall, where she said that one of the cooks told her that if she took the job he would make her life miserable.
Fred Aransky, who was Berkeley dining hall manager at the time, confirmed that Dwyer applied for the job, but said that she eventually turned down the position.
On Dec. 5, 2000, after taking hormones for three years, Neil Eckels became Erin Emily Dwyer and had the sex specification on her driver’s license changed to female by the state of Connecticut.
See you in court
Dwyer said she was constantly harassed by employees in the Morse/Stiles dining halls and her workload started disappearing.
Dwyer’s case is being investigated right now by Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights. Lena Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the agency, said if the investigation yields evidence that supports Dwyer, she and Yale will either attempt to settle out of court or, in an unlikely event, go to trial.
Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said that the University’s position is that this is a promotion issue, although she also said she that she believes that “they have done some sensitivity training [in the Stiles dining hall].”
Robinson estimates three sexual harassment cases surface in a year as an administrative proceeding or a lawsuit.
“From time to time there are personal disagreements or disputes that get to the point where a complaint is logged,” Robinson said. “Typically these things can be worked out under grievance proceedings under contract.”
Until Tuesday, Dwyer was on probation as a third cook in the Morse/Stiles dining hall. She has been demoted to a job preparing the salad bar, though she said her union contract stipulates a second extension on the trial period.
Aransky, who is currently the manager of the Morse/Stiles dining hall, confirmed the demotion.
“Basically, she did not pass her probation,” Aransky said. “She was not fired, she’s working starting Monday, just in a different position.”
Now she spends a sizeable fraction of her working hours sitting in the Ezra Stiles College courtyard. While some students and fellow employees claim that she is lazy, Dwyer says that often other employees will refuse to work with her, and she has nothing to do.
“[It’s] really sad and really disgusting,” Jonathan Mikhalevsky ’03 said. “What’s happened is a lot of Yale students think Erin is really lazy, and they don’t have a lot of sympathy. Most of that I think is because Erin’s not allowed to work in a lot of cases. I used to think it was just her being lazy too — I’m finding more and more, people refuse to work near her.”
Though Dwyer claims her work habits are impeccable, one of her fellow employees claims that her hygiene is poor.
“Her work habits ain’t that good; they’re sloppy. She doesn’t know her job,” said a Morse dining hall worker who wished to remain anonymous. According to her, Dwyer has been known to drop food on the floor, put it back in the pot, and doesn’t wear gloves.
“Neil took the third cook’s test three times,” said a chef from Silliman who observed one of Dwyer’s chef tests. “[She is] not a very clean man or woman.”
“The first time, he tried to blame other cooks, managers, other people in the kitchen for messing up stove temperatures,” he said. “He’s one of the most unsanitary people I’ve ever met. When he finished the test, I threw out every bit of food.
“Most people at Yale knew he was going to put up a harassment suit; that was her prime objective from the get-go. [She is] not a good worker and not a very nice person.”
Though one of the Morse College dining hall workers said she does not believe Dwyer has been harassed, she did acknowledge that Dwyer had a difficult career at Yale.
“For the most part, Erin can be a pleasant person to work with,” the Morse employee said. “She can be moody. A little moody — but I can understand because she has her guards up because she’s been through so much in her 15 years at Yale.”
A few weeks prior to her demotion, Dwyer sat outside before the end of her 11-7 shift talking about the injustices of her thwarted career.
“I was born a transsexual,” she said, “not a chef.”
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