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"Much work remains to be done, especially when it comes to the protection of Black transgender lives."
On Monday, an overdue victory was delivered to the LGBTQIA+ community and allies across the country as the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal for an employer to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The landmark ruling was an expansion of employment protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was initially intended to protect women from sex-based discrimination in the workplace. Monday’s decision found Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which made it illegal for employers to discriminate because of a person's sex—to also cover sexual orientation and transgender status.
Continual and rampant discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people has long been a problem in urgent need of legislative intervention. For nearly five decades, activists have fought to implement explicit legislation that would prohibit the discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Following her 2013 firing after coming out to her employer as transgender, Aimee Stephens became a central figure in ongoing advocacy efforts to protect LGBTQIA+ workers from unjust termination and treatment. Sadly, she died in May—barely one month before the historical ruling she helped spearhead.
Given the historic absence of anti-discriminatory laws, cases like Stephens’ are unsettlingly common. According to The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 survey, 27 percent of transgender job applicants reported not being hired for the job they applied for, being denied a promotion, or being fired from a job in the past year because of their gender identity or expression. Fourteen percent of those who held a job in the past year say they were verbally harassed at work because they were transgender.
After decades of failed legislation, this week’s vital Supreme Court ruling marks a historic moment in the LGBTQIA+ community. As recently as 2019, 52 percent of LGBTQIA+ people lived in states where a lack of explicit legislative protection meant individuals could be harassed, fired, and refused training or promotion because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Although there is still much work to be done in providing sustainable safety measures for LGBTQIA+ employees, “sex-segregated bathrooms, locker rooms, and dress codes will prove unsustainable after our decision today," wrote Neil Gorsuch, who dismissed claims that the decision would cause “social upheaval,” after the 6-3 victory was passed.
Despite the momentum gained by this recent Supreme Court decision, the path forward remains murky. Recent tweets from the queer and trans community have highlighted skepticism around what constitute adequate anti-discriminatory practices in the workplace. For example, while expansions on the Civil Rights Act may protect workers from being unjustly fired, many are asking whether this ruling will prevent biased hiring practices which often preclude LGBTQIA+ candidates from being offered positions.
In a 2015 survey, 39 percent of respondents who were not hired for a prospective position listed gender identity or expression as the reason why. A 2017 workplace equality survey showed that one in four LGBTQIA+ employees reported experiences of employment discrimination in the past five years. And while these statistics are grim, it’s important to note that a growing lack of trust in law enforcement and legal protections render these statistics highly underreported. Diminished trust and long histories of discrimination, like all forms of social injustice, find their way into every public and private sphere—including work. After all, the workplace is not a vacuum; it is a microcosm permeated by larger structural inequalities and discriminatory practices.
The transgender community is at high risk of violence in the United States, with at least 14 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals having been murdered this year alone. What's more, Black trans women face disproportionate risk, a trend that has been referred to by many as an epidemic. Just last week (in the span of 24 hours) two Black trans women were killed—Riah Milton and Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells—prompting thousands to show up in protest around the country and highlighting the need to show up for all Black lives—including transgender Black lives.
As we continue to grieve the deaths of transgender community members, this Supreme Court victory is an important yet somewhat elementary step in the ongoing struggle to provide LGBTQIA+ people with protective legal measures and human rights. And yet, this belated win, for many trans activists, is bittersweet.
Though this ruling is worth celebrating, many are doing so while also mourning and protesting against the harassment, murders, and discrimination to which transgender people—especially Black trans women—are routinely subject. As such, the need for further government intervention and preventative measures becomes glaringly evident.
For LGBTQIA+ people living in the United States, active discriminatory work practices have rendered this ruling an essential step in creating safer and more reliable employment standards across the country. But much work remains to be done, especially when it comes to the protection of Black transgender lives. Whether this legislation will be reliably upheld by employers and impact society at large remains to be seen. Still, this win marks an important shift towards implementing necessary structural changes that center and prioritize the safety, wellbeing, and security of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the workplace.
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