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AFSCME Council 35

Supreme Court Grants Workplace Rights to LGBTQ Workers

In a historic decision, the court ruled that it's illegal to fire someone for being gay or trans

Brian Young's picture
Jun 15, 2020

The Supreme Court has issued a historic workplace discrimination ruling that will extend protections to millions of LGBTQ workers. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act should cover people’s sexual orientation and transgender status. The case revolved around whether being gay or transgendered is protected under the “sex” statute in the law.

With this ruling, it would now be illegal to fire someone for being gay or transitioning. While 21 states have laws protecting LGBTQ workers and 7 more have laws protecting LGBTQ public employees, it was still legal in the other states to fire someone simply for being gay.

The case, which is known as Bostock v. Clayton, was a conglomeration of cases that have been making their way through the lower courts over the last few years. Gerald Bostock, the plaintiff in the case, said that he was fired from his job working as a child welfare coordinator in Clayton after he joined a gay-friendly softball league. Bostock, who was fired in 2013, said that joining the league brought attention to his sexual orientation and without protections in his state, the local government had the right to fire him.

The court also heard about Donald Zarda, who in 2010 was working as a skydiving instructor in New York. According to legal documents, he often informed his female clients of his sexual orientation to “mitigate any awkwardness that might arise from the fact that he was strapped tightly” to them during a tandem skydive. In this case, the student told her boyfriend who complained to the company, Altitude Express, which promptly fired Zarda.

The third case that was included dealt with firing someone for transitioning. Aimee Stephens was fired from her job at a Michigan Funeral Home two weeks after she told the company that she was transgender. Sadly, Stephens died on May 12th from kidney disease and never got to see her nearly 7-year fight for equal rights fulfilled.

Perhaps most surprising about the case was that two justices from the conservative wing of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch, provided the deciding votes in favor of the workers. Gorsuch, who was appointed by Trump in 2017, said in the majority opinion:

"An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids. Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result, but the limits of the drafters' imagination supply no reason to ignore the law's demands. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

With about 8.1 million LGBTQ workers this case will have a major impact on allowing these workers to be their true selves in public. It is also a continuation of a series of cases that grant protections to LGBTQ Americans and comes five years after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

"Today, the Court recognized that discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is rooted in sex discrimination," Jerame Davis, the Executive Director of Pride at Work. "The approximately 11.5 million LGB people and 1.5 million transgender people in the United States are now protected from discrimination in workplaces across the country. While many lower courts already have recognized that, we now have clarity from the highest court in the land. Not every working person has the benefit of an inclusive union contract to protect them from discrimination on the job. Until today, half of LGBTQ people lived in a state that had no law to protect them from discrimination. Economic justice for marginalized communities is at the core of the labor movement’s work. Unions fight every day to ensure the dignity and respect of every working person and this decision helps advance that cause."

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