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SPLC urges Supreme Court to preserve workplace protections for LGBTQ people

Soon after Y.B. took the night shift as a forklift operator, her boss started harassing her because she is a lesbian.

“I want to turn you back into a woman. I want you to like men again,” he said. “Are you a girl or a man?”

Y.B. endured the harassment for weeks, but eventually complained to the company’s human resources department. The next day, she was fired.

Her case is an example of the ways in which employees are harassed and/or fired for being LGBTQ that are cited in a friend-of-the-court brief the SPLC filed today, along with several other organizations. The brief urges the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of LGBTQ employees who have workplace discrimination cases before the court.

“Excluding LGBTQ people from federal protections for sex-based discrimination in the workplace is just wrong, plain and simple,” said Beth Littrell, senior attorney for the SPLC. “No one should have to choose between making a living and being who they are. These harms affect more than just LGBTQ individuals – more than 3 million children are being raised by LGBTQ parents. Excluding LGBTQ people from these vital federal protections would be cruel and unjust, contradicting the many courts and agencies that have already said it is unlawful sex discrimination. The Supreme Court must uphold these critical federal discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.”

The brief examines the harmful effects of employment discrimination against LGBTQ people – especially LGBTQ women, people of color, and those in small, rural communities. It also looks at the impact of sex-based discrimination on those individuals, their families and the community at large.  

In particular, the brief shows that the harm resulting from excluding LGBTQ people from workplace protections against sex-based workplace discrimination, which they already disproportionately face, can create a cycle of cascading harms that reach far beyond the direct target of the discrimination.

In addition to harming the mental and physical well-being of the individuals – some of whom will be left jobless, homeless and reliant on government assistance – LGBTQ workplace discrimination forces some people to make an impossible choice between a job or a family. It also exposes the children of LGBTQ parents to increased risk of poverty and associated harms. LGBTQ workplace discrimination also leads to loss of health care and housing.

The Supreme Court announced on April 22 that it would review three cases, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, Altitude Express v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia (which has been consolidated with Zarda), all of which address the question of whether the prohibition on discrimination “because of sex” found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  

The brief examines the alarming rate at which LGBTQ people, especially women and people of color in small and rural communities, face discrimination in the workplace. It also explains the cascading harms that not just LGBTQ individuals, but also their families and communities, would experience if the court excludes LGBTQ people from Title VII’s protections. 

Although LGBTQ people make up more than 4 percent of the U.S. population and around 6 percent of the workforce, LGBTQ people continue to face workplace discrimination at an alarming rate. According to a Williams Institute study, nearly one in 10 LGB employees has reported losing a job because of their sex. Other reports conclude that up to 37 percent of gay and lesbian individuals, and 90 percent of transgender people, have been harassed at work.

“Empirical evidence shows that LGBT people experience pernicious and disproportionate employment discrimination across geographies, industries, and sectors of the Nation’s workforce,” the brief states.

In addition to highlighting Y.B.’s story, the brief also highlights the stories of other individuals who have been significantly harmed by workplace discrimination, including a Springfield, Massachusetts, police officer.

The officer, who is gay, decided to stay closeted throughout his career after seeing other officers assault a fellow police academy graduate because they suspected he was gay. Life in the closet took its toll and the officer eventually resigned from the police department.  

Later, in what he called “the turning point of my life,” he came out as gay.

But when the officer attempted to return to the police force as an openly gay man, his application was denied – even though the police chief acknowledged that he had done “a commendable job as a police officer.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in these cases about federal sex discrimination law could have drastic consequences not only for the LGBTQ individuals who are the targets of discrimination, but also for their families, their communities and for society. 

The SPLC, Children’s Defense Fund, Dēmos, Economic Policy Institute, National Association of Social Workers, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Poverty & Race Research Action Council and 9to5, National Association of Working Women, jointly signed onto the brief.

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