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LGBT Workers Are Protected From Discrimination, Supreme Court Rules

Many older workers have lost jobs due to sexual orientation

Demonstrators in favour of LGBT rights rally outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2019, as the Court holds oral arguments in three cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

In a landmark decision for the rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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The 6-3 ruling decided that the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ban employers from firing or otherwise discriminating against workers on the basis of sex also protect workers who are LGBT.

"An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch writes in the majority's opinion. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."

The legal victory arrives at a moment when the gay pride celebrations that normally happen every June in cities across the nation have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some gay pride events are being held virtually this year.

The Supreme Court's ruling will have a significant impact for people age 50 and older. AARP and AARP Foundation joined an amicus brief in support of the LGBT workers who were fired in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, a case the Supreme Court ruled on Monday. AARP Foundation Litigation's brief noted that “one in five older LGBT adults reported recent involuntary job loss due at least in part to their perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, and older LGBT workers postpone retirement at a higher rate than the general population, likely due to a lifetime of economic disadvantage.”

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AARP has more than 900,000 self-identified LGBT members.

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"Today we became a more perfect union under federal law in an unexpected and historic 6-3 decision,” says Nii-Quartelai Quartey, AARP's senior advisor and LGBT liaison. “While LGBTQ 50-plus workers must still contend with age discrimination, they can rest easier knowing that LGBTQ employment discrimination is now illegal under federal law. Implementation won't be easy and we still have much to do to advance the civil and human rights of all, but today let's all delight in this hard-fought watershed moment for our members and our country.” (The “Q” in LGBTQ stands for queer or questioning.)

The ruling the court issued Monday involved three separate incidents of employment discrimination. In the first, Gerald Bostock, who started working as a child-welfare services coordinator for the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, in 2003 was fired in 2013 after his coworkers learned that he played in a gay softball league.

In a second incident, Donald Zarda worked as a skydive instructor for Altitude Express in New York. In the summer of 2010, a female customer alleged that he touched her inappropriately and flirtatiously while the two were doing a tandem skydive, in which the instructor and the client are “strapped hip-to-hip and shoulder-to-shoulder with the client so that the instructor can deploy the parachute and supervise the jump,” according to the petition to the court.

The woman said Zarda told her he was gay as they prepared to dive, the documents say. Altitude Express fired Zarda shortly after they were told of the incident. Zarda died in a skydiving accident in 2014.

The third part of the case involved a transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, who was fired from her job with R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan in 2013 — where she had worked for six years — after telling her employer about her gender identity and her intention to start wearing women's clothing to work. Aimee Stephens died in May at the age of 59.

“This ruling will help to protect the livelihoods and employment opportunities of our 900,000 self-identified LGBT members,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president and chief advocacy & engagement officer.

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“At the same time, we are disappointed by the recent rollback of key LGBT protections by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which on Friday finalized proposed changes to Section 1557 of the ACA.  The policy change – in direct contrast to the Supreme Court ruling – eliminates specific references to sexual orientation and gender identity from nondiscrimination requirements covering state policy planning, Medicaid managed care plans and more.”

Editor’s note: This article originally was published on June 15, 2020, and has been updated with a statement from Nancy LeaMond.

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