Screencap of former Elder Scrolls Online artist, Leona Faren, from a video she posted about her experiences with transphobia while working at ZeniMax. She is a white trans woman with long brown hair and bangs wearing a purple, long-sleeved, scoop-necked shirt standing with her hand on her hip in front of a white wall with a trans pride flag hanging on it.

We Can’t Ignore This Transphobia Lawsuit in the Excitement for ‘Starfield’

ZeniMax, owned by Microsoft since 2021, is the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, the developers behind Starfield, one of the year’s biggest game releases (as well as the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series developers), as well as several other studios. Leona Faren, an artist on Elder Scrolls Online and former ZeniMax employee from October 2018 to May 2022, brought a lawsuit against them in May of this year.

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Faren, a transgender woman, is suing ZeniMax for “their failure to provide continuation coverage” for her healthcare. In the suit, Faren asserts that she signed a severance agreement with ZeniMax, which stipulated that they’d provide her COBRA coverage (18 months of healthcare coverage after leaving the job) on the condition that she not file a discrimination lawsuit.

This was allegedly after a year of transphobic aggressions in her workplace after she came out (which the company seems to admit, if they’ve asked her not to file a discrimination suit). Oh, and she says she was pressured to come out because her supervisor outed her on Slack during a meeting before she could talk to the team herself. Faren documented all of this through screenshots, recorded phone calls, and more.

However, all of that isn’t even what the lawsuit is about. The suit is about what came next.

ZeniMax engages in “take-backsies,” apparently

In a four-hour video she posted on YouTube in June, Faren presents her entire, heartbreaking story, recordings of infuriating phone calls with her supervisor included. You can watch the whole thing below, but the description features a time-stamped summary:

Content warning: Documentation of transphobic phone calls and chat messages are presented in the video below.

Faren says she wanted to leave ZeniMax’s toxic environment but needed her employer-provided medical coverage to afford followup care to the treatment she’d already started. After months of pressure from ZeniMax, Faren signed the agreement that terminated her employment in May 2022, while recovering from surgery.

She received the COBRA information, filled out the forms, and paid her premium. COBRA coverage was supposed to start June 1, 2022. Assuming her coverage was taken care of, she continued pursuing her medical care. However, the clinic where she received her care alerted her that her pre-authorized services were canceled due to lack of coverage. Since her coverage was “inactive,” they’d have to restart the authorization process, which could take weeks.

On June 2, Faren reached out to ZeniMax’s HR department and was promised they’d have the situation resolved by close of business that day, and that she’d have coverage retroactive to June 1, so there wouldn’t be a gap.

The clinic tried to submit the authorizations again the following day, and again was told that the insurance plan was inactive. Faren reached out to ZeniMax’s HR department and was told “that ZeniMax had ‘done all that it was supposed to’ so that her benefits would be continued through COBRA, and that the issue was ‘outside of the Company’s control.'” They “attached a letter to the email confirming Ms. Faren’s COBRA coverage.”

And here’s the kicker, from the lawsuit (emphasis mine):

“In mid-June, Ms. Faren confirmed with Blue Cross and Blue Shield that she was still covered under the plan and scheduled her surgeries to take place in July. However, the coverage was retroactively terminated after the surgeries took place, leaving Plaintiff with hospital and doctor’s bills.

Ms. Faren continued to be without health insurance until September 25, 2022, resulting in high priced prescription drug payments, as well as physician and hospital bills, many of which she was not aware of for months following services.

Ultimately, Ms. Faren’s coverage under the group healthcare plan was no longer effective after June 1, 2022. Neither ZeniMax nor AP sought to rectify the situation after June 3, 2022. […] She has been without the health coverage that she was entitled to starting June 2, 2022, and has been forced to pay for medically necessary expenses out of pocket.”

As a queer, cisgender woman who was pursuing IVF to start a family with her queer, trans wife through a corporate employer-provided plan (later a union-provided plan), I know firsthand the ways in which both employers and insurance companies are not prepared to or interested in dealing with anyone not cis or straight.

HR departments exist to protect the company, not the workers

Even the most well-intentioned human resources departments don’t actually exist to help employees. They exist to protect the company from getting sued. That’s their main function. In Faren’s case, that happened in a straightforward way when her health coverage was held hostage so she wouldn’t file a discrimination lawsuit. But HR departments do this in more subtle ways, too.

While it’s useful to report things to HR so that you have a recorded account of when complaints were made should you decide to take legal action, the HR department requires complaints to be made in a specific way in order to “qualify,” and once they decide to investigate a situation, much of your power is removed. The company also now has a recorded, dated account of your complaints, which they can use against you to protect the company: You filed a complaint on this date, but not for all this time before that. Was this actually an ongoing problem?

Meanwhile, employees are given sensitivity trainings and forced to watch anti-harassment videos with quizzes at the end you can easily cheat through in the name of preventing a “hostile work environment.”

Listening to Faren’s calls with her supervisor is infuriating, because the supervisor carefully uses vague “corporate-ese” to speak obliquely without addressing any of Faren’s concerns. It’s so clear that the supervisor wants to mention Faren’s transness, but knows that could be a legal minefield, so she calls Faren to task by talking in circles about “work-related” things that make no sense.

In one of my previous jobs, I was a department manager in a large corporation, and I was required to take an HR training specifically geared to supervisors. A lot of it was the same stuff all employees get, but then there’s the added managerial stuff that ensures supervisors will behave in a way that’s aligned with the company’s interests, even as they talk a big game about protecting employees: These are the ways in which you can fire someone. These are the words you can’t use when firing someone.

All the trainings and videos in the world mean nothing if people don’t actually care about learning. Rather than genuinely educating people and preventing discrimination, these efforts simply teach people how better to camouflage their micro-aggressions.

Faren’s supervisor put on a big show of trying to be sensitive to Faren’s needs while causing Faren harm. This isn’t accidental. This is likely how that supervisor, and everyone else at the company, was trained.

Insurance companies make LGBTQIA+ folks jump through extra hoops

The fact that most of us need employer-provided health benefits in the first place, because we couldn’t afford good coverage otherwise, is a huge problem. Companies give you the illusion of choice by providing a limited number of plans they’re willing to pay for, but essentially your bosses decide whether and how you care for your physical and mental health.

In the best of times, regardless of one’s gender or sexuality, insurance companies try to take your premiums without paying money on your claims. They’re actively looking for reasons not to cover you.

For LGBTQIA+ folks, there are extra hoops that need to be jumped through to justify certain procedures as “medically necessary,” whereas cis, straight people get speedy access. For example, the language of many insurance companies’ benefits around fertility treatments doesn’t account for queer couples. Suddenly, “medically necessary” becomes very complicated.

Let’s just say it was “lucky” that I happen to have endometriosis (discovered when I started the IVF process), which insurance companies consider a qualifying medical condition, because trying to pursue IVF coverage by explaining that I’m in a same-gender relationship, but that I wouldn’t be needing a sperm donor, but that I would need fertility treatment, was apparently too much for an insurance company to wrap its head around.

In this case, Faren was lucky that the health coverage she should’ve received would’ve covered her gender-affirming care. Many companies don’t, and she probably still had to jump through several hoops to prove its “necessity.”

Where Faren didn’t luck out is with her former employers, who were ill-equipped to deal with a trans employee correctly, preferring instead to make her the problem while doing their best to cover their asses. This case is ongoing. Here’s hoping that Faren gets the financial compensation to which she is entitled.

(featured image: screencap/YouTube)

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Image of Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.

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