No one saw this coming. The fight to protect LGBTQ individuals in the workplace seemed unwinnable, especially in this judicial era. But to everyone’s surprise, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity illegal on Monday, June 15.
Unlike the highly anticipated historic ruling to protect same-sex marriage five years ago this month, yesterday’s ruling caught many legal observers and LGBTQ activists by surprise. After all, the Supreme Court now has a 5-4 conservative majority. It includes one justice who was accused of sexual harassment and another who was accused of sexual assault. This definitely did not seem like a court that would be open to protecting gays and lesbians in the workplace, but it did just that in a 6-3 ruling this week. The decision was a bright spot in a year that has been marked by a pandemic and civil unrest over police brutality.
“Today’s decision is an important step forward. It is a powerful reminder of how much work is left to do, and how critical that work remains.”
Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls
Freedom Center for Social Justice Founder and Executive Director
Autumn Austin, a Charlotte political operative who supports liberal candidates, said that when she heard the news yesterday she felt relief and “pure happiness.”
“Twenty-twenty has been utterly awful. There has been so much bad news and so to see something positive, in this moment, felt like a huge weight lifted off of me,” she said. “I am LGBT and I know all of the people involved in this case who have been fighting so hard. It felt like an historic moment for the country as a whole, but mostly my population and that felt good.
“It is hard to fathom that in 2020, we would still be having this conversation,” she added. Austin wants to be protected in the workplace, but she works for liberal organizations and political candidates. It is a little easier for her, but she said she thinks about others who may be at higher risk; especially those working in corporate settings or the transgender family. She said she is happiest for them.
Experts say Monday’s decision will have ripple effects throughout the country.
“People are going to be able to be themselves at work,” said Charlotte attorney Connie Vetter. “Their co-workers will get to know them for who they are. It’s harder to hate other people when you actually know who they are.”
As a young attorney, Vetter was often forced to tell clients that they did not have any legal recourse if they believed that they had been terminated because of their sexual orientation or identity. North Carolina is a right-to-work state and sexual orientation was not protected. This ruling changes that.
“Federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and you cannot talk about discrimination based on sexual orientation, based on gender identity without talking about sex. It’s all talking about sex,” she said explaining the ruling. The Supreme Court decision means that the term “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity. This ruling says you cannot fire people for being an LGBTQ individual. It supports what activists have been saying all along, that sexual orientation and gender identity are completely unrelated to one’s ability to do one’s job.
“A HUGE VICTORY for LGBT workers across the U.S. and right here in South Carolina. In the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis and the vitally important nationwide demonstrations in support of Black lives, this decision is heartening and encouraging.”
South Carolina Equality Executive Director
It is likely that the legal interpretation will impact areas outside of employment, which was the basis for this lawsuit. For example, Monday’s ruling came after Friday’s announcement that the Trump administration was erasing Obama-era regulations prohibiting discrimination in healthcare against patients who are transgender. It is unclear how Monday’s ruling will impact the Trump administration’s new policies.
Maurice Falls, a former Charlotte teacher, is still digesting this week’s victory. He knows what it is like to not be yourself in the workplace. He quit working as a seventh grade social studies teacher because he said he enured extreme harassment and a lack of support around his sexual identity. He said he was routinely called faggot by students, and bullied and threatened in the classroom. When he complained to the school’s administrators, he said that he did not receive any support. Falls recalled that students were also targeted with anti-gay slurs.
“It just kind of broke me,” he said.
“As a teacher once you start talking about your sexuality, it becomes taboo. You get all of these cues from your leaders that we’re not going to talk about it,” he continued. “You have to work in a way that’s not authentic. Even though we’re a freer society in a lot of ways; in our workplaces there’s still unwritten rules.”
Those unwritten rules are the ones that prevent gay employees from putting photos of their same-sex partners or spouses on their desks or bringing a same-sex partner to work events. The SCOTUS ruling opens the closet door a little wider and invites more LGBTQ individuals to step out.
• • • • •
What Other Organizations are Saying about SCOTUS Ruling:
“This victory is a watershed moment for the LGBTQ community all across America and holds more significance than the marriage equality rulings of several years ago. For decades, LGBTQ people have fought to secure basic protections from discrimination within every arena of their lives. The Court’s decision will directly impact millions of people across the country and allow them to both live authentically in the workplace and care for their families with respect and dignity.
“But even with this landmark ruling, the work of the LGBTQ community is far from done. HB 142 is still on the books in North Carolina. There are still shocking and critical gaps in our nondiscrimination laws, particularly in housing, public places, federal programs and more. LGBTQ people face harassment and mistreatment in their daily lives and black and brown LGBTQ trans people face even higher rates of discrimination and, oftentimes, violence.”
Equality North Carolina Executive Director Kendra R. Johnson
“The North Carolina Democratic Party applauds today’s Supreme Court ruling that the Civil Rights Act’s protections against sex discrimination also apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. No one should live in fear that who they love, or how they identify, would put their employment or any other aspect of their life in jeopardy.
“We are thrilled with this significant step forward in our country and will continue to stand alongside the LGBTQ+ Community in the fight against discrimination. Here in the Tar Heel State, we call for the General Assembly to immediately repeal HB142 and to pass the Equality Act to ensure that all North Carolinians are given full and equal protection under the law.”
Wayne Goodwin, North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman
Ginger Walker, LGBTQ Democrats of North Carolina Auxiliary President
Janice Covington, North Carolina Democratic Party Transgender Caucus Chair
“Today is a historic day: The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the fundamental equality of LGBTQ Americans, including the more than 5 million who live in Southern states. The ruling ensures a blanket of employment protections for LGBTQ people rather than the inadequate patchwork that has all but stopped at the borders of Southern states. For LGBTQ Southerners, the decision shows yet again that that no one should face discrimination because of who they are or who they love.
“The decision comes at a time when millions of Americans are facing unemployment or reduced employment because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As LGBTQ people venture back into the job market, we’re grateful for this measure of relief: The legal protection that employers can no longer use anti-LGBTQ bias as a weapon in the workplace.
“While we’re grateful for this step forward, we all must remain committed to this month’s deepened and long overdue conversation around racial injustice. We lift up the reality that Southerners with multiple marginalized identities face multiple layers of oppression. Black LGBTQ Southerners, for example, not only confront employment discrimination but also police brutality, anti-Black racism, and disproportionate rates of living with HIV. As we celebrate today’s ruling, we must continue to push for dignity, respect, and justice for all LGBTQ people in every sphere of life.”
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara
Campaign for Southern Equality Executive Director
“Today’s joyful victory for LGBTQ+ civil liberties stands in stark contrast to the hateful rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration, which just days ago reversed nondiscrimination health protections for transgender Americans. At NextGen North Carolina, we will continue to reject bigotry in all forms and stand committed to mobilizing our generation to defeat anti-LGBTQ+ leaders like Thom Tillis, who has concertedly undermined protections for LGBTQ+ North Carolinians in every step of his career — from driving forward Amendment One as NC House Speaker to confirming Brett Kavanaugh, who today argued against civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ workers.
“LBGTQ+ rights are human rights. We will continue to fight for all to have equal protection under the law, and through the power of the youth vote, will work to remove every last anti-LGBTQ+ official from office.”
NextGen North Carolina Press Secretary
— Compiled by Lainey Millen