By Karen Dolan
This moment in our nation’s history is marked by pain and uprising.
Infections and deaths from the coronavirus are occurring at heartbreaking rates. Cities and small towns are on fire, figuratively and literally, as police brutality against black people has finally reached a tipping point. Black transgender people are targeted and murdered by police and private citizens alike.
In the midst of this, a stunning victory has been won for human and civil rights in the United States: On June 15th, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision stating that people who are transgender, gay, lesbian, queer, or intersex can’t be fired from their job simply because they belong to one or more of those categories.
This historic decision was achieved by an astonishing 6-3 vote in a conservative court, written and delivered by Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch. It makes clear that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment, now applies to people with any sexual orientation or gender identity.
In short, it codifies that people are people and deserve human and civil rights.
This is huge. I would argue it’s even bigger than the marriage equality decision of 2015, though it couldn’t have happened without it. Not everyone desires to be married, and marriage isn’t a necessity for survival. But safe and gainful employment, free of discrimination, is.
It may come as a surprise to some that, until now, the federal government allowed employment discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But while some states fully prohibit the practice, a majority do not. The rules on LGBTQ workers are a patchwork of selective protections and outright discrimination across the country.
Well, almost. Gorsuch did include a carve-out for religious exemption. This is a serious and concerning carve-out that must be remedied by Congress, and will be litigated.
Importantly, although this ruling pertains to Title VII, which is the unemployment discrimination section of the Civil Rights Act, it also places sexual orientation and gender identity firmly in the federal legal definition of “sex.”
This is of vital importance, as it puts the heft of Supreme Court law behind this definition. That could also inform rules on sex discrimination in areas such as housing, education, health care, and even in the occupying of public spaces, among other areas where the rights of transgender people in particular have long been violated.
The Trump administration has been aggressive in its attempts to roll back every protection won during the Obama administration for transgender people. Most recently, Trump announced a rule to roll back protections for transgender people included in the Affordable Care Act.
This ruling all but negates those attempts.
It isn’t automatic, and there are still court battles to be fought, but this decision puts some very big boxing gloves on organizations like the ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, the Office of Civil Rights, and the Human Rights Campaign as they fight for decency, human rights, and equality under the law for all people.
Transgender people, and especially black transgender people, face the most poverty, the most abuse, among the greatest barriers to health care, and the highest rates of targeted murder of any population in the United States. As such, amid the ongoing unrest, this ruling was also a significant affirmation that black lives matter.
There’s a lot of bad news out there, but I hope we’ll celebrate amid the pain. May this be the first of many victories in the fight toward equality in this country.
Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.