Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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Federal LGBT Employment Rights On The Move

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Image: Dr. Jillian T. WeissThere is no federal statute prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. A bill is on the horizon to change that, with a very good chance of passage. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 (HR3017/S1584), introduced in various forms since 1974, would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It has 179 House co-sponsors and 40 Senate co-sponsors, and many more expected to support the bill.

Despite the arguments of opponents, the bill’s text is unremarkable in many ways. Similar to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the current job discrimination law, it also contains language to deal with issues specific to LGBT workers. As in Title VII, it covers employers with 15 or more employees and most government offices. It prohibits discharge, refusal to hire, and other discrimination based on “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” as well as discrimination based on association with gay people.

The terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are clearly defined, despite the concerns of opponents. “Sexual orientation” is defined in the bill as “homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality.” It’s specifically used in distinction to the more ambiguous term “sexual preference.” Opponents argue it could protect pedophiles, base on the false idea that pedophilia is a “sexual preference.” Since the term “sexual preference” is not used, and the term “sexual orientation” is very clearly defined, that argument is incorrect. Unfortunately, this been used as a fear-mongering tactic.

The term “gender identity” is defined as “gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s designated sex at birth.” This refers to the social, psychological and behavior stereotypes of our sex at birth. It protects workers from discrimination or harassment based on conformity with stereotypes of gender. For example, if someone born male expresses their gender in a manner stereotypically considered feminine, whether it be in mannerisms, appearance or, on the extreme end, identification with the opposite sex as a transsexual, they are protected from dismissal or harassment because of this. In other words, gender is removed as a job performance criterion.

Some are concerned that allowing transsexuals to have jobs will cause a burden on employers by requiring them to build separate shower and dressing facilities for transsexuals. However, the Act does not require employers to permit access to shared shower or dressing facilities where nudity is unavoidable. It specifically disavows the idea that construction of additional facilities are required.

Both terms, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” have been used in many state and local laws since 1975, and are considered by legal experts to be well-understood in the legal context at this point.

Concerns about a “gay quota,” and a flood of lawsuits are equally unfounded. The Act explicitly bans any preferential treatment or quotas. The government may not require collection of statistics on sexual orientation or gender identity. “Disparate impact” lawsuits, often seen in the Title VII context, are not permitted under ENDA. Such claims are based on the allegation that employer actions have indirectly resulted in a reduced number of LGBT employees. Only the direct harm of “disparate treatment” lawsuits would be permitted.

Religious freedom is also addressed in the bill. The Act does not apply to organizations exempt from the religious discrimination provisions of Title VII. In his testimony at the Congressional hearing on September 23, 2009, Acting EEOC Stuart Ishimura stated his belief that this would exempt such religious organizations not only from penalties for discrimination on the basis of religion, as in Title VII, but also from all penalties under ENDA for any discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Act does not apply to members of the Armed Forces, and does not change special rights for veterans. It explicitly states that it will not invalidate other federal, state or local laws.

A hearing was held before the Committee on Labor and Education on September 23, at which many illustrious witnesses testified to the widespread extent of serious harm the current situation has caused for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees. The bill is expected to be voted on in the House in the next few weeks, where it is expected to pass. It will then go to the Senate, and a vote is expected there before year-end. President Obama has vowed to sign the bill.

About the Author: Dr. Jillian T. Weiss is Associate Professor of Law and Society at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and has consulted with many organizations on issues of transgender workplace diversity, including Boeing, Harvard and New York City.  She may be reached at jweiss@ramapo.edu

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