For nearly 14 years, Tech. Sgt. Kristin M. Kingrey has served her country as a member of the West Virginia Air National Guard. Now Kingrey, a 37-year-old lesbian, is suing the Army and Air Force, claiming a senior male leader said she should grow her hair, wear makeup, “and ultimately appear more feminine,” or prepare to face the negative professional consequences.
Kingrey told The Daily Beast that after the remarks were made a job she had successfully applied for was suddenly withdrawn, and the Guard also refused to hire her for a position she was qualified for, “despite her satisfactory performance as a federal employee,” as her lawsuit, filed in a federal court, states.
When the comment was allegedly made, it was not the first time. “From 2016 to 2018, I was constantly being pulled into my seniors’ offices being told my hair was out of regs (non-regulation),” Kingrey told The Daily Beast. “It crossed a line into harassment, and I carried on my person a copy of our regulations in regards to female hair length because I was not breaking any rules.”
Kingrey, from Charleston, West Virginia, believes that sexism and homophobia are key parts of her case—she was singled out as a woman, and a lesbian woman specifically. Hers comports to a stereotypical lesbian appearance, she says, and her boss wanted her appearance to be more conventionally “feminine.”
The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 23 last year, claims Kingrey was subject to “continued harassment, discrimination, and retaliation based upon her sex—including her sexual orientation and perceived gender nonconformity.”
The incident that sparked the lawsuit occurred after Kingrey’s senior leader, Vice Wing Commander Col. Michael Cadle, called a female lieutenant colonel and asked her to go to lunch.
Kingrey said Col. Cadle had told the female lieutenant colonel to encourage Kingrey “to grow my hair out and start wearing makeup because if I didn’t it would be detrimental to my career in the West Virginia Air National Guard. I had heard of other females with short hair having issues with people saying things, but I don’t know that progressed to the extent mine did. My hair length has nothing do with my work ethic or job performance. I should be judged on my merit. But my seniors clearly think females should not have short hair. I do not conform to what they think a female should look like. I wish I had an answer as to why this comment was made, or why this is so important to Col. Cadle.”
The female lieutenant who was tasked with talking to Kingrey was “completely appalled and angered” by the comments, Kingrey told The Daily Beast. “She knew I was within regulations and did not understand why this was so important. When I found out about the comment, I was truly disheartened and disturbed,” Kingrey said. “I’ve been in the military for a little over 14 years. They’ve become my family. I see my military family more than my own family. Initially I was embarrassed. I could not believe that not fitting their mold of how I should look would truly impact my career. It was devastating.”
The lawsuit states, “Other instances of discrimination and harassment include colleagues and superiors perpetuating the rumor that Plaintiff Kingrey was ‘transitioning’ from female to male.” Kingrey was also allegedly forced to try on a woman’s Honor Guard jacket in front of others to “confirm that none of the women’s sizes would fit,” the lawsuit states.
“This is about what they think a lesbian female should look like,” Kingrey told The Daily Beast. “It leaves me in such disbelief. They have made this my life. Whenever I discuss it I am at a loss for words. It was a completely unacceptable comment, and a completely unacceptable situation. I am fighting this case not just because what happened to me was blatantly wrong, but, most importantly, I truly hope positive change comes from my case and it prevents another individual having to walk this path, because it is a very long and dark path to walk.”
When she initially heard of Col. Cadle’s alleged remark, “for a very brief moment, literally a moment,” Kingrey thought she should take Cadle’s words to heart. If she didn’t, “I thought it would really devastate my career. Then I thought, ‘I’m within the guidance. This is a personal belief on their part. I am who I am. I am being myself. I am not the one in the wrong. I am not the one who crossed the line. Why should I have to change because of someone else’s belief?’”
Kingrey says that after the comment was made the job that had been verbally offered to her was suddenly longer no longer available because of an alleged funding cut. The role was then re-advertised. “I want the job back that was taken from me,” said Kingrey. “I started connecting the dots and realized his threat had come true. That’s when I decided enough was enough.”
“What does having short hair and not wearing makeup have to do with my work performance?”
The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 23, is using the precedent by the Supreme Court’s Bostock ruling of June 2020, which enshrined that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act sex discrimination extends to anti-LGBTQ and gender identity discrimination. The lawsuit charges that the Army and Air Force “discriminated against Plaintiff Kingrey on the basis of her sex—including her sexual orientation and perceived gender nonconformity—by eliminating a position which Plaintiff Kingrey had already been selected—and hired—nearly 18 months after her initial acceptance.”
Kingrey told The Daily Beast that since bringing the case she has been subject to “retaliation,” with her and some female colleagues presently being investigated for “fraternization,” which she says is the socializing of those from different ranks. “In all my time in the military, no one has blinked when men do it—hunting, going fishing, playing golf, families vacationing together—but here we are, three women, under investigation for the same. I find it very odd that shortly after I filed my Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint complaint [EEOC] I find myself under investigation.”
Col. Cadle, while not her immediate boss, remains in Kingrey’s chain of command while the case continues, which is “very stressful. It’s a very heavy burden, very taxing mentally, and for me there is no getting out from under it,” she told The Daily Beast. “The workplace is uncomfortable, although nothing has been said about the case. We can all save that for the courtroom.”
Mike Hissam, Kingrey’s attorney, told The Daily Beast that while the military typically could not be sued in federal court, in Kingrey’s case it was possible to do so because the job in question was a civilian position within the military. The Army and Air Force are being sued together because Kingrey works on a joint forces’ base. Kingrey is suing her employer as a civilian.
Her complaint states, “As a dual status technician, Plaintiff Kingrey serves as a federal employee in a civilian position with the National Guard, Department of the Army and/or Department of the Air Force. As a dual status technician, Plaintiff Kingrey is employed with the Department of the Air Force as an Air Transportation Craftsman and as an HRO Benefits Specialist—a position funded by the Department of the Army and/or Department of the Air Force.”
The case could last from 18 months to 2 years, Hissam said. The defendants in the case are named as Defendant Frank Kendall, the secretary of the Department of the Air Force and Defendant Christine Wormuth, secretary of the Department of the Army.
The Army and Air Force have yet to respond legally to the complaint. The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment by The Daily Beast. A U.S. Army spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “As a matter of policy, the Army does not comment on ongoing litigation.”
In a statement at the end of December, the West Virginia National Guard said: “The West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) is fully committed to an inclusive and diverse workforce free from harassment. As a matter of policy, the WVNG does not comment on matters that are currently pending in litigation. But generally, the WVNG advised an outside agency who is charged with conducting investigations that are prompt, fair, and impartial in matters like this one. They produced a report with the factual record, and it was determined that no discrimination and/or harassment occurred. As such, we are continuing the process to present the facts to fully resolve this matter in the court system.”
“I think even without the Bostock ruling, this is a viable case,” Hissam told The Daily Beast. “Issues around gender conformity and hair and makeup would come under gender discrimination before sexual orientation was added under Title VII. It’s discrimination on the basis of sex regardless of her sexual orientation. There’s a loaded history around sexual orientation that goes back a long time.
“We will be arguing that this was discrimination on the basis of sex, and discrimination on the basis of Kristin not conforming to the gender norms that the leadership of the organization thought she should conform to. We know that from some of the correspondence so far that they will argue that they cannot discriminate against lesbians because other lesbian women within the organization have thrived. What is clear is that those other lesbian women don’t have the same issues that Kristin has faced.”
“No one should have to go through the kind of harassment and discrimination Technical Sergeant Kingrey faced over the years,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said in a statement. “This is someone who has devoted her life to serving her country and her state, and this is how she’s treated? We’re better than this. For all of the lawmakers who say discrimination isn’t a problem anymore—here’s proof it is.”
Kingrey told The Daily Beast she would accept an apology from Col. Cadle, “but what I would really like to convey to him is that just because you have a personal disagreement with official guidance does not give you the latitude to impact an individual’s career. There are many things I personally don’t agree with, but that doesn’t give me the right to treat a person differently, without basic human or professional respect. What does having short hair and not wearing makeup have to do with my work performance? I would love an answer to that.”
Kingrey says that an assistant to the adjutant general reached out to her, to offer his support, and then when she responded seeking that, she was informed that he had been told to stand down and not engage with her and could now not help her. “I felt extremely ostracized,” said Kingrey.
“The whole thing has made me feel that I don’t belong, and that my career will be hindered,” said Kingrey. “But I have not considered quitting. I will not be defeated. They are not going to make me leave something that I truly love, and I truly love putting on the uniform every single day. I love my country, and I love my state, and I have served them both honorably for over 14 years.”
Kingrey said she has received support at work, with some colleagues telling her they appreciate her standing up for herself, while other colleagues are “afraid, because they have their own careers and lives which I understand.”
The ghost of the notorious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy still lingers in the military, Kingrey told The Daily Beast. “Early in my career it was very prominent, and even today my personal life is not workplace talk. I’m not embarrassed of who I am. The workplace is just not somewhere where I talk openly about my personal life.
“People have said other things about me over the years. Once I wore earrings, again within regulations, to work, and a male leader asked me when the Air Force had allowed men to start wearing earrings. It was a very hurtful joke, again based on stereotypes of what women, and lesbian women, look like. I like to remain professional at all times. I corrected him, and he was apologetic. A lot of such comments are not said directly to me but get back to me. I know who the people are and what they have said. People talk, it happens. In the past I brushed it off and pressed forward.”
In Kingrey’s estimation, the National Guard has remained more entrenched in anti-LGBTQ attitudes than other branches of the military.
“There is some homophobia, some ignorance, some people just don’t understand. Within the past three years the National Guard has come out heavily on inclusion and diversity. We get all this training. I am hearing the conversation and not seeing the action. The storefront is there, and it’s great, but there’s nothing really behind it. If all of the fine words are true, why am I where I am with what I am dealing with? A true victory would see the Air Force or National Guard come to the table and be honest and open about diversity and inclusion. Show the action. I win if nobody else has to go through anything like this again.”
Kingrey is presently working at the same base where the comment was made, with all her same colleagues and bosses. “I get up and go to work every day. I give 100 percent while I am at work, and at the end of the day I come home.”
She has a partner of three years, and the situation at work has been “challenging” for the relationship, she told The Daily Beast. “When I come home I am working on the case. I’m constantly researching something. A lot of this takes time away from our relationship, unfortunately. It’s also very comforting to know I have someone supporting me who is non-military, to be able to come home and be with someone outside that environment. I can somewhat detach from it for brief periods of time.”
Kingrey says she has been very depressed. “I have felt completely lost. I have felt less of a valuable asset and member because of this. It’s very hard mentally, emotionally, and physically. There have been many, many sleepless nights because my mind goes over so many different scenarios. I am in such a heightened state of vigilance, only once I get home can I turn that off. It’s like a vicious cycle. There’s no break from it.”
Within the last couple of months Kingrey has begun therapy, “because I realized my depression was getting to a point where I realized I needed it. But it’s a lot of work, because I am still living in this situation every day.”
“It’s truly a privilege every day to put that uniform on and serve my country”
Growing up, Kingrey was inspired by the example of her uncle who was in the Air Force and Air National Guard in West Virginia. “I watched him throughout his career. I saw the pride he had putting on his uniform and performing his military duties. I knew at an early age the military was something I definitely wanted to be part of, and my way of giving back to my community, my state, and my country.”
When she joined up at 23, it was “one of the best decisions I ever made. It offered me the opportunity to do things and go to places I have never been to. I have met some of the greatest people, and have friends all over the world. It’s truly a privilege every day to put that uniform on and serve my country.”
Coming out was “a very long and difficult period” of Kingrey’s life. “I come from a family that has disagreements towards homosexuality, but at the end of the day they told me they loved me and that they accepted and loved me for who I was.”
Being gay was never an issue earlier in her career when she was deployed on active duty. “Nobody was focused on who was LGBTQ. There was no stereotyping stigma. My hair and makeup was never an issue. When I was deployed in the Middle East where it was 130 degrees during the day, profusely sweating while having short hair and not wearing makeup was a plus. It was a totally different environment. Everybody was there to do a job. At the end of your shift you’re exhausted and just ready go to back to your bunk, take a shower, go to bed, and get ready for the next day.”
“It is unfortunate, the way it has happened,” Kingrey said of the case. “But it needed to happen. It needed to come out. The problem needs to be addressed, and changes made where necessary, so another individual never has to experience the anxiety and fear of being discriminated against, or put up with derogatory comments that have nothing to do with regulations but someone else’s personal beliefs.”
Hissam said he was confident of victory. “If we have to go all the way we will go all the way, even if that means trial,” he said.
“We would want reinstatement and back pay,” Hissam said of what a successful resolution would look like. “Kristin should get the position she applied for and would have gotten had it not been for the unlawful discrimination she suffered. That’s the outcome she wants.”
Kingrey told The Daily Beast she “definitely wants to stay and finish out a 20-plus year career in the military. I am committed to the military. I just want to go through my career on a fair basis. I’ve never asked for favoritism just because I am from the LGBTQ community. I just want to be allowed to continue my military career based on my own merits and off my work ethic. Judge me on that.”