Gendered Dress Codes Hurt Everyone — Especially Non-Binary People Like Me

The Washington State Human Rights Commission’s found Alaska Airlines’ gendered dress code policy discriminatory. It’s time for the airline to do the right thing.

Justin Wetherell, Alaska Airlines Flight Attendant and ACLU Client

I started working as a Flight Attendant for Alaska Airlines in July of 2014. I grew up by the airport in Anchorage, with Alaska Airlines planes constantly flying overhead. Every summer when visiting family, we flew on Alaska Airlines. I wanted to work for the airline for as long as I can remember and was ecstatic when I got the position. I always felt a sense of belonging — being part of a close-knit community with a huge impact on my home state.

For the past eight years, I’ve given a lot to the company. I participated in many community events and promotional activities and was hired to be a flight attendant instructor. Throughout this time, I felt a growing unease and discomfort with the company’s uniform policy, which required flight attendants to wear either “male” or “female” uniforms. After a tough period of self-discovery, I came out as non-binary — to overwhelming support from family, friends, coworkers, and supervisors.

Around the same time, Alaska Airlines began creating a new uniform policy for frontline employees. This was the perfect time to make much-needed updates, acknowledging the expansive reality of gender identity and gender expression. Instead, the airline published a policy reaffirming an outdated binary gender by requiring flight attendants to wear a “male” or “female” uniform. The airline’s binary uniform policy dictated every aspect of our dress and grooming — including whether we could wear neck scarves or ties, or dresses or skirts; whether we could wear facial hair or make-up; and even what color shoes or belts we could wear. I sent my first email stating the policy was discriminatory to executive management in the fall of 2019, not realizing the three-year battle that was about to take place.

A photo of Justin Wetherell.

Justin Wetherell

The illegal and discriminatory uniform policy maintained by Alaska Airlines forces employees like me to dress and groom in a manner inconsistent with our gender identities and gender expressions. There is no reason for the airline to continue to enforce this illegal policy — other than to maintain an outdated and discriminatory idea of gender.

An important value at Alaska Airlines is “Do the Right Thing.” This value is advertised both on aircraft and in corporate facilities with the quote, “The time is always right to do what is right,” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately, in this case, Alaska Airlines clearly will not do the right thing until they are forced to by the state of Washington, or by a lawsuit.

In September of 2022, the Washington State Human Rights Commission validated three years of my own advocacy against Alaska Airline’s policy and found the dress code likely violates state protections against discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. I hope the decision by the commission will finally push Alaska Airlines to create a legal, non-discriminatory uniform policy. I look forward to the day when all employees can show up at work and be valued and accepted for their whole selves. It is time for executive management at Alaska Airlines to follow the law and stand behind their values.

Yet to this day, Alaska Airlines continues to purposefully misinterpret Washington state law. The relevant law has been explained to executive management by the ACLU and the state of Washington. The airline’s discriminatory actions are out of character for an airline claiming both to support the LGBTQ+ community and to foster an inclusive work environment where all employees feel valued and accepted.

While teaching new flight attendants, I am able to dress and groom in a manner befitting my gender identity and expression. Supervisors, coworkers, and students constantly share their happiness in seeing me show up as my full self. However, while working as a flight attendant, I am forced into an outdated ideal of masculinity and femininity. Alaska Airlines wants to portray stereotypical genders to the public, which actively harms employees and creates an exclusionary work environment.

It is time for Alaska Airlines to do the right thing.