Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross issued a new non-discrimination policy this week omitting explicit assurances LGBT workers won’t face discrimination in his department, prompting an outcry that resulted in an updated version of the document making clear the prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination.
The 2017 Secretarial Policy Statement on Equal Employment Opportunity initially found on the Commerce Department’s website declares it won’t tolerate discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. Omitted from the policy: sexual orientation and gender identity — two categories that were included in the policy under the Obama administration.
According to a report in Buzzfeed, the Ross policy statement was circulated among department staff on Thursday. The new policy statement was posted in the last 10 days, Buzzfeed reports, because an archived view of the website from June 6 reveals the 2016 LGBT-inclusive statement was included. The Commerce Department employs nearly 47,000 workers, according to its website.
David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s government affairs director, said in a statement the omission represents “the Trump/Pence Administration actively seeking to undermine rights for LGBTQ people.”
“The Commerce Department’s EEO statement is meant to inform workers and applicants about their legal protections,” Stacy said. “Cutting specific mention of sexual orientation and gender identity protections is a slap in the face to LGBTQ federal employees who proudly serve at the Department of Commerce and sadly signals that this administration does not value them.”
After initial media reports and outcry over the omission, the Commerce Department sent out a new version of the non-discrimination policy Friday with sexual orientation and gender identity specifically included.
A Commerce Department spokesperson said the omission was “never intended to change the policy or exclude any protected categories” and insisted the department doesn’t discriminate against LGBT people.
“I hope we can help people understand that the impression this whole situation gave people is really not who Secretary Ross is,” the spokesperson said. “As soon as this was brought to his attention, he was appalled and directed immediate action be taken to rectify any misconceptions. From his first day at Commerce, Secretary Ross has made clear that he will tolerate no bias or discrimination of any sort.”
Even if the Commerce Department no longer prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBT workers there would still have protections under the executive order signed by President Clinton barring anti-gay discrimination in the federal workforce, which President Obama expanded to include transgender people.
LGBT workers at the Commerce Department may also find restitution for claims of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964. The law contains no explicit prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination, but the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a growing number of courts have determined the prohibition on sex discrimination under the law applies to LGBT people.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) decried the Commerce Department omission as “appalling” in a statement and was among those who called on Ross to reinstate sexual orientation and gender identity in the policy.
“While LGBT employees of the Department remain protected under the government-wide policy instituted by former President Obama, this decision by Secretary Ross sends a signal that LGBT Americans are not welcome at the department he leads,” Hoyer said. “In addition to the injustice of his move, the Secretary ought to reflect on the role of the LGBT community in our economy and the importance of LGBT businesspeople in creating jobs and expanding trade to benefit our country and its workers.”
Joel Kasnetz, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, also criticized the Trump administration for the LGBT omission and said the restoration of the language is an insufficient remedy.
“You can’t un-ring a bell,” Kasnetz said. “By trying to erase LGBTQ people from the Commerce Department’s nondiscrimination policy, the Trump administration sent a crystal clear message to LGBTQ Americans: ‘You’re not welcome here.’”
The Commerce Department didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on why sexual orientation and gender identity were excluded from the policy in the first place.
A White House official deferred to the Commerce Department statement in response to inquiries on whether President Trump was OK with the omission and whether it was the result of an administration-wide directive. In January, the White House said Trump would leave in place Obama’s executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.