April 24, 2012 at 5:46 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
EEOC ruling on trans rights triggers new call for ENDA

Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center (photo courtesy of the Transgender Law Center)

LGBT rights supporters are continuing to press for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, following a ruling this week from a U.S. agency expanding non-discrimination protections under existing law to  include transgender workers.

During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, emphasized the need for passage of ENDA, legislation that would bar employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Davis said ENDA would complement the ruling Monday from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that determined Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 covers gender identity.

“We still need ENDA,” Davis said. “This decision is incredibly important. It means that transgender people throughout the United States now have legal recourse … We need to make sure that we couple that with legal protections from Congress and the courts.”

Tobias Wolff, a gay law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ruling doesn’t provide non-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian workers — coverage that ENDA would provide. Additionally, Wolff said transgender workers could face discrimination based on sexual orientation if they’re in a same-sex relationship that an employer finds objectionable.

“If you’re a transgender lesbian, for example, then the question of whether you’re protected from discrimination based upon your gender identity is often put on the table at the same time the question of whether you’re protected from discrimination because you’re a lesbian,” Wolff said. “This ruling speaks to the first question; it doesn’t speak to the second question.”

LGBT organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force issued statements calling for the passage of ENDA after the EEOC decision was rendered.

HRC President Joe Solmonese said “it is critical” the entire LGBT community have “clear, strong protections against workplace discrimination in federal law.”

“Policymakers must take every step available to them to ensure all workers have a level playing field, including passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the adoption of an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors,” Solmonese said.

EEOC made the ruling after the Obama administration was criticized by many in the LGBT community for deciding at this time against issuing an executive order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But the advocates say they believe the two decisions are unrelated.

Davis said he “doesn’t see any connection” between the White House decision not to issue the executive order and the EEOC ruling affirming transgender workers’ rights.

“This case has been in process for over a year now,” Davis said. “This has been with EEOC for several months. The EEOC is an independent agency and the decision was made by the five appointed commissioners.”

That observation was verified by the White House. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the EEOC “reached their conclusion on their own.”

Davis said the decision is almost certain to stand because it cannot be appealed to a higher court or anywhere else because the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would have to show the decision was “clearly erroneous.”

“This is the final word,” Davis said. “ATF could ask for reconsideration by the commission, but it’s very unlikely they would even ask for it … The agency would have to show that the decision was clearly erroneous in its interpretation of the law, which was plainly not the case [given] the EEOC issued the decision in light of the strong trans federal court decisions.”

However, Wolff noted that the Supreme Court could get involved in the issue if lower federal courts make their own decisions on whether Title VII should apply to transgender workers.

“I think it’s a little premature to say that this is a settled issue among the lower federal courts,” Wolff said. “I think it is correct to say that the trend among lower courts is … recognizing anti-trans discrimination is sex discrimination and that that is certainly the better argument. The question of whether or not the court gets involved will probably depend what types of opinions we see coming out of lower federal courts.”

The ruling will allow for the hiring of Mia Macy, a transgender woman who allegedly was denied a job as a ballistics technician at the ATF.

“That’s all she’s ever wanted,” Davis said. “She wants the ability use her skills and her talents and her tremendous experience … to serve as a member of ATF.”

Ilona Turner, legal director for the Transgender Law Center, said her organization would also seek the restitution of back pay, which could be resolved through settlement or the agency issuing a response to the discrimination complaint and ordering the appropriate remedy.

“As she mentioned, she lost her house as a result of this,” Turner said. “Her family has been seriously affected financially by what she went through.”

Wolff also spoke favorably about the presence on the EEOC of Chai Feldblum, a lesbian who’s had a long history of LGBT activism — authoring ENDA and fighting against the institution of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993.

“She is one of the most distinguished and brilliant minds of our generation on discrimination law and statutes that are aimed at prohibiting discrimination,” Wolff said. “I think that one can see her expertise certainly, among others, reflected in the analysis of this opinion. When the president selected her for this post, I think it represented a strong statement on the part of his administration about the importance of good and sensible thinking on anti-discrimination law enforced in the statutes like Title VII. It is because we have such good people on the EEOC that we see a ruling like this.”

CORRECTION: An initial posting of this article misattributed a quote about Chai Feldblum. The Blade regrets the error.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

1 Comment
  • Terrific, informative story. It’s great to see an organization like the Transgender Law Center doing the hard, unsung work that makes real, lasting change come about. DC’s local group, GLAA, has blazed a similar trail for 41 years now on behalf of DC’s LGBT residents.

    Let’s hope the WH corrects it decision to not issue an Executive Order barring federal contractor discrimination. Otherwise, it sends a message to Congress, that the president is not all that serious about passing ENDA.

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