Former Louisville EMT claims city ignored complaints about fire captain’s discriminatory gender comments

“You are more than entitled to have your personal opinions,” she said. “You are not entitled to bring those to work, especially when you are a public servant.”
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 5:20 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - After seeing a story on WAVE News, former Louisville EMT Olivia Couture decided it was time to share her story publicly.

She was the target of what she described as crude comments that started echoing throughout the firehouse about her gender identity. Those complaints, she said, went nowhere.

“You did nothing for me,” Couture said to those tasked with her formal complaint. “You didn’t investigate it, you didn’t give me any updates, he still works there, to my knowledge, no punishment has ever been doled out. It was as if it never existed.”

Couture wanted to be an EMT ever since she saw an episode of the television show, Scrubs. For years, she was saving lives alongside those she considered the regional pinnacle of the profession.

“My like, dream kinda just slowly started to turn into a nightmare,” she said.

The comments, she said, were because she’d come out as transgender.

“It was very like, derogatory, very objectifying, very dehumanizing,” she described.

It was Dec. 2020 while she was out with COVID, that a co-worker called.

They were shocked that Louisville Fire Captain, Stephen Patterson had made crude comments about Couture.

“My name got brought up, but not by name,” Couture said. “It was, ‘that paramedic that works for us, you know, that he-she, I’m not sure who they are.’”

Couture claimed Patterson called her an “it” and made fun of her body parts while using the restroom.

WAVE News chose not to repeat the specific statements. Later, Couture’s supervisor chose not to either.

“Basically it was like, Olivia, it was pretty bad. I don’t want to repeat it,” she said.

That would not be the only time Patterson made fun of her, according to fire records.

“‘It is derogatory in itself, and these were kind of that step above,” Couture said.

Couture and her co-workers wrote up complaints but said nothing seemed to happen.

“And then we waited, and waited and waited,” she said. “The whole investigative complaint was placed in a drawer somewhere and forgotten about.”

In the meantime, the job Couture loved became toxic. It reminded her of the times before transitioning, when she felt it was her only option.

“Before I ever transitioned, I was very suicidal,” she said. “It was either I do this or I can’t.”

Couture started wondering who else didn’t like her and who had her back.

“I couldn’t help but think, what happens when he makes a call with a suicidal transgender teenager who just got kicked out of their home?,” she said. “What happens if he gets a recruit? He’s a captain, you know that recruit stands no chance at Louisville Fire.”

Couture said there was a new group at Metro Human Relations that opened her case. She credits a former LMPD officer investigating it with finally getting traction.

“I think they were just trying to make it go away,” she said. “They were like, well, if we give you a list of 70 names, it’s going to take you forever. Good luck.”

It’s something Chris Hartman, executive director of The Fairness Campaign said he still sees all the time.

“Every time I hear it, I am saddened but not shocked,” Hartman said.

According to records obtained by WAVE News Troubleshooters, it would be a year and a half after the complaints before Patterson was reprimanded.

A city spokesperson stated that the compliance division of HR was made aware of the complaint in Dec. 2020.

“Due to staffing issues and COVID, the investigation was not completed,” they stated. “It was initiated again in Dec. 2021 when the compliance team was fully staffed. Once the division became staffed, investigators were able to contact the complainant, and the compliance team was able to access files necessary to complete their investigation.”

HR is now fully staffed with two additional investigators serving metro government’s 5,500+ employees.

It wasn’t until a friend saw a story on WAVE News about the fire captain’s reprimand, that Couture learned anything had happened in the case.

That’s when she reached out to the Troubleshooters directly to share her story.

“I couldn’t get a courtesy email?,” she said. “Or a text? ‘Hey the investigation is done?” I didn’t hear from HR either.”

Metro EMS said that they turned the information over to Metro HR as soon as they gathered the complaints, which was in less than 48 hours.

Hartman said complaints should not be stalled past the local cut off time of 180 days locally, or 360 federally.

“Look, in general, a company’s HR is working to protect the company,” he said. “I like to think that things have gotten better in Louisville in general. I mean we have one of the oldest fairness ordinances in the nation that protects trans folks along with lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer folks. It was sort of groundbreaking for Louisville to pass that fairness, inclusive ordinance back in 1999.”

However, he added there is still a lot of work to be done.

“The culture has got to change,” Hartman said. “Not just here in Louisville, but across the nation in these professions that have traditionally been dominated by men.”

In the letter of reprimand, Patterson was ordered to take two online classes about gender identity. He was warned that if something happens again, he’d be suspended for two years.

Patterson is still a ranked officer in the fire department. Couture says she wants Patterson to know it is not OK.

“You are more than entitled to have your personal opinions,” she said. “You are not entitled to bring those to work, especially when you are a public servant.”

Couture admitted to quitting during a shift before her two weeks notice was over the second time.

She does not have any plans to return to the field.

“Louisville Metro Government takes these and all complaints seriously, and if the allegations are substantiated, we initiate training and/or discipline as appropriate based on the severity of the behavior,” a city spokesperson continued.

As part of their discriminatory investigative process, HR gathers information including any documentation, conducts witness interviews, and creates an investigative report which is submitted to the Compliance Administrator, they said.

From there, the information travels to the Assistant Director of Employee Relations, or to the HR Director if warranted. It is up to the Compliance Administrator to inform the complainant about the outcome, the city explained.

For resources against discrimination, click or tap here.