Trans model sues NYC agency for alleged discrimination

Muse Model Management is located at 150 Broadway in Manhattan.
Muse Model Management is located at 150 Broadway in Manhattan.
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A trans model is suing a New York City-based agency in federal court for allegedly refusing to respect his gender identity in the workplace and pushing him to work as a woman against his wishes.

Frances Coombe, who is 30 and came out as a gay trans man last year, said in the suit that he has worked as a model for more than a decade and, until recently, performed work for Muse, or Muse Model Management, which “represents a variety of models,” according to the agency’s online website. Muse is located at 150 Broadway in Manhattan.

Coombe started modeling for Muse in 2011, initially catering to the “female market” and displaying a feminine gender expression, states the lawsuit, which was filed in Manhattan federal court on Dec. 19. But in recent years, Coombe’s “gender expression had become increasingly androgynous as expressed through hair, body styling, and clothing.”

By October of 2021, Coombe told Muse and Muse CEO Conor Kennedy that he identified as non-binary at the time. From that point on, Coombe described a hostile work environment rife with resistance from his bosses, who allegedly told him non-binary models “are not sought after in the casting process.”

“You’re still on the women’s board and clients will only look to you as a woman,” Kennedy told Coombe, according to the lawsuit. “In the modeling world, non-binary does not exist; we will still pitch you to clients as a woman. In modeling life, you will be ‘she’ and ‘her’ until you arrive on set…”

Among other issues, the lawsuit also alleges that Coombe was falsely classified as an independent contractor despite performing duties that were consistent with working as an employee, resulting in “overpayment of tax, loss of required employee benefits, such as unemployment and workers compensation insurance benefits and health insurance benefits, and other benefits of employment.”

But the most prominent part of the suit focuses on the allegations over Coombe’s gender identity.

“It is no surprise that models evolve their looks, and I had been moving towards more androgyny for quite some time, as have many of my former agency’s models, both male and female,” Coombes said in a written statement provided to Gay City News through his attorney, Jillian Weiss. “I wish my former agency could have looked beyond gendered labels, particularly given management’s LGBTQ focus.”

The lawsuit says Coombe arranged with the agency to take new digital photos on Oct. 21 of 2021 “to rebrand as a model with non-binary gender expression.” However, the suit says the photographer from the art department “insisted that Plaintiff wear women’s clothing, i.e., a bikini, and refused to permit him to wear men’s boxer briefs or men’s shoes.” 

“These were sent to clients and placed on Muse’s website to promote Plaintiff for future jobs,” the lawsuit alleges.


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However, on Jan. 22 of 2022, Coombe hired a photographer to shoot photos for the male modeling board and showed them to Muse representatives. Coombe started taking exogenous testosterone hormones on Feb. 11 and proceeded to notify Kennedy about that and convey that he identified with male pronouns. 

By May 27 of 2022, Coombe realized he was removed from the Muse website without notice. He recalled holding a July 2 meeting with Muse representatives, at which point the agency refused to accommodate his request to work as a male model, according to the suit.

“Mr. Coombe was told by top officers of Muse, including Mr. Kennedy, that he was insufficiently masculine,” the lawsuit alleges. “Defendants Muse and Kennedy told others that Plaintiff needed to appear more masculine.”

Coombe went on to file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on July 5 for “continuing action of discrimination on the basis of sex and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964…” Less than three months later, on Sept. 25, the EEOC provided Coombe with a Notice of Right to Sue.

On July 7, 2022 — five days after meeting with Muse leadership — the suit says Coombe met with two of the agency’s representatives on the men’s modeling board, but he recalled getting misgendered by one of them who allegedly referred to him as “she” and “girl.” When Coombe objected to that, the person allegedly said, “I’m gay, so I call everyone she and girl.”

A week later, Coombe said he “inquired politely” with one of those representatives to follow up about modeling on the men’s board, and that Muse had photos “with a male gender expression that it could use on the men’s board.”

In response, the representative allegedly told Coombe,”I need the right images of you. I will not just put anything up on the site.”

Kennedy allegedly called Coombe on July 14 to “complain” about the email Coombe sent to the men’s board representative, telling Coombe that he “can’t talk to [him] like that, he is a senior agent.”

Coombe went on to request to be referred to and listed as a male beginning on June 17, 2022, but received no response. Coombe then lodged oral and written complaints to Muse and Kennedy.

In the end, Coombe sent a written complaint on March 27 of this year stating that the discriminatory treatment persisted, leading him to resign. The lawsuit claims unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as New York City and State anti-discrimination laws.

Coombe told Gay City News he has since found work — “I’m very happy to be working again,” he said — but he wanted to file the suit to prevent others from facing the same fate.

“This lawsuit sends a strong message,” Weiss, Coombe’s attorney, said in written statement. “No one should ever be subjected to job discrimination on the basis of their gender, even in a gendered industry such as modeling.”

Weiss added: “People used to think that women could not be police officers and men could not be flight attendants. We have learned as a nation that such stereotyping is not only wrong, but incorrect. This is also true even in a gendered industry such as modeling. A model may also be respected on the quality of their work, regardless of gender identity. All Americans deserve an equal chance to work hard and earn a living for themselves and their families, without fear of being targeted for being themselves.”

Carlos M. Carvajal, an attorney representing Muse, defended the agency in an email to Gay City News on Dec. 21.

“Muse represented Frances Coombe for over 10 years as a model,” Carvajal said. “It’s surprising and disappointing that Frances has filed this lawsuit that lacks merit and is legally flawed. We look forward to clearing Muse and Conor of any alleged wrongdoing.”