CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) -- A former Chesterfield County teacher claims she was told by administrators she was too masculine and needed to be more feminine.
Dina Persico, a former civics teacher, has filed a federal lawsuit against Chesterfield County Public Schools alleging gender discrimination. She believes she was repeatedly harassed because she is a lesbian.
"Flamboyant was a favorite term of theirs," she explained of school administrators. "'Your appearance is too flamboyant, you're arm movements are too flamboyant,' it's said with intent and that intent is to say that you're gay."
Perisco tells 8News the alleged harassment was initiated by administrators and other staff at Providence Middle School and intensified at Midlothian High School.
She claims she faced repeated reprimands about her appearance.
"It was suggested that if I seemed more feminine, I would be less intimidating as a person."
Persico says her principal even suggested she change her wardrobe.
"'If you just throw a skirt on once in a while, we wouldn't have any of these problems,” Persico recalled.
The former teacher also says she was once banned from the ladies room.
“I went to put my hand on the door and he actually blocked me and was like, 'no, that's really not appropriate, you going in there with all the, you know, young female students,'” Perisco said, adding that she felt humiliated.
“It was an assault on my person, and then it was like your basic human dignity, I just need to use the restroom. That's all I need to do."
“This is gender discrimination,” Persico’s attorney, Colleen Quinn, added.
“Just this on-going barrage of criticism because of how she dresses,” Quinn said.
Button downs, a sweater or fleece, pants and athletic shoes -- that was typical teaching attire for Persico.
“I'm just not a fashion person," she said. "Simple shirt, I put on a second layer because I get cold."
Her employee handbook contains only a few lines on dress code that call for a “professional image.”
Chesterfield schools provided this dress code policy to WAVY sister station WRIC 8News. It calls for “appropriate business attire."
Persico also taught in Hampton City Schools for 10 years without issue. Officials confirmed Persico worked with the district from August 2005 to June 2015.
If you ask her about teaching civics, something she dreamed of doing since she was a kid, she lights up.
"I absolutely loved it," she said. "You get to teach kids what it means to be a citizen and how to participate in government."
She tells 8News the alleged constant badgering started when the principal at Providence Middle School learned she is gay and married to a fellow teacher.
Her wife, Erin Guthe, said “It's very clear to me that my wife was discriminated against because of the way that she expresses her gender.
"I think I and women like me are given more of a pass because we appear more feminine." Erin Guthe
Guthe says she even witnessed some of the attacks on Persico’s appearance.
"I was actually in the meeting where the assistant principal told her to change her hairstyle,” Guthe recalled.
“They even suggested I get bangs," Persico added.
Eventually it all took its toll, and Persico suffered a mini-stroke. The doctor told her it stemmed from work.
"She said it was 100 percent related to stress," said Persico.'
Guthe says the experience was devastating for Persico.
“She has lost her entire sense of self-identity and who she is,” she says.
Persico was advised by her doctor not to return to work. Now, Persico's final lesson is a lawsuit that she and her attorney hope leads to change.
"I just felt like this was a case that cried out for awareness,” Quinn said.
"Number one, they get some training and understand what they did to me was wildly inappropriately,” says Persico.
8News reached out to Chesterfield for comment, but was told Chesterfield schools does not comment on pending litigation.
CLICK HERE to view the entire federal lawsuit. You can hear more of our conversation with Persico in the 'Web Extra' below.
WEB EXTRA: Former Chesterfield teacher files federal lawsuit alleging gender discrimination
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