Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination against LGBTQ workers. It was a sweeping and unexpected ruling from a conservative-majority court.
The seeds for that milestone victory were planted nearly 50 years ago in 1974, when Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) introduced the original Equality Act, an expansive measure that sought to amend Title VII to ban discrimination “on the basis of sex, marital status, or sexual orientation in public accommodations, public facilities, public education, federally assisted programs, housing, and financial services.”
That bill failed, of course, as did several others in the intervening decades, leaving millions of LGBTQ workers vulnerable to harassment and discrimination on the job.
I experienced that discrimination firsthand while working for a large telecommunications firm in 2001, when my boss, who displayed a Bible on his desk, openly blamed gays for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When he realized I was gay, the retaliation began; I was disinvited from meetings, work assignments dried up and eventually I was made to report my whereabouts to the office secretary anytime I left my desk, even for a trip to the bathroom.
Despite filing complaints with HR and hiring a lawyer, there was nothing I could do as no federal law prevented employers from harassing and firing their gay workers and fewer than half of the states had such laws on the books. It’s a problem that affects untold numbers of workers around the country.
Then along came three plaintiffs: Aimee Stephens, a transgender funeral home director; Donald Zarda, a gay skydiving instructor; and Gerald Bostock, a Clayton County, Ga. official. All three were fired for being gay or trans. Bostock was fired after his supervisor learned he had joined a gay recreational softball league. Their combined cases led to the historic court ruling that determines anti-LGBTQ bias is a form of sex discrimination, thus prohibited under Title VII.
“An employer who fires 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,” Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
At a time of increasing attacks and rolling back of LGBTQ rights at the federal level, the decision — notably penned by Trump-appointee Gorsuch — is a well-timed Pride month reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
The ruling should apply to laws other than Title VII, including the Fair Housing Act, the Affordable Care Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1964. That would mean LGBTQ people now have federal protections not only in employment, but also in housing, health care and in school systems.
As the Blade reported, because no federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in public accommodations or federal programs, the ruling does nothing for LGBTQ protections in those areas. For example, Colorado baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple and narrowly won a previous case before the Supreme Court, would still be able to refuse service to LGBTQ customers under this ruling.
No federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in the U.S. military, so President Trump’s ban on transgender military service will remain in effect.
So the road ahead for the LGBTQ movement will include efforts to finally pass the Equality Act, which remains bottled up in the Senate. It will likely take a Democratic Senate and president to finally realize Rep. Abzug’s dream of nearly 50 years ago.
In the meantime, LGBTQ Americans can finally report to work as first-class citizens, confident they will be judged by their performance and not based on whom they love.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at email@example.com.