On June 15, 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that the protections against sex discrimination in federal employment law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status. The decision immediately secured critical workplace nondiscrimination protections for nearly four million LGBTQ people living in the 29 U.S. states without express protections under state law. 

Arriving at this landmark decision was decades in the making, as more and more courts over time have come to understand that it is impossible to discriminate against a person because they are LGBTQ without discriminating because of the person’s sex. 

The three cases considered by the Supreme Court and decided together in Bostock were brought by Gerald Bostock, who was fired when his employer found out he joined a gay softball team; by the family of Don Zarda, who lost his job as a skydiving instructor when he told a client he was gay to make her more comfortable with the proximity needed for a joint dive; and by Aimee Stephens, a skilled, long-time funeral home director who was fired when she came out as transgender. Sadly neither Don nor Aimee lived to see the outcome of their cases. The queer community assuredly owes them both, and Gerald, a debt of gratitude. Their courage and determination, along with that of the many other LGBTQ people who brought cases in lower courts before them, brought about this important victory. 

Dee Farmer: An Early Transgender Rights Hero

Aimee Stephens’ case marks only the second time the Supreme Court has ruled in a case brought by a transgender plaintiff. The first case was one decided in 1994, when Dee Farmer, an African-American transgender woman won the right to bring an Eighth Amendment claim against prison officials after she suffered a brutal sexual assault while incarcerated, an assault that prison guards witnessed and allowed to happen. Dee’s case set the standard under the Eighth Amendment for prison officials’ liability for the damages incurred from such an assault. Aimee Stephens joins Dee Farmer as a transgender hero.

The Bostock ruling was remarkable in its clarity and simplicity. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, says plainly that a person’s sexual orientation or transgender status can only be understood in relationship to their sex, and that this conclusion “has been standing before us all along.” The ruling also notes: “To refuse enforcement just because the parties before us happened to be unpopular at the time of the law’s passage… would tilt the scales of justice in favor of the strong or popular and neglect the promise that all persons are entitled to the benefit of the law’s terms.” 

The impact of these cases — that LGBTQ people nationwide, have protections from discrimination in the workplace — is huge in and of itself. But the Court’s determination that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is “necessarily” based on sex has far reaching implications for other critical areas in which federal law also prohibits sex discrimination. These include healthcare, housing, and education — all areas in which the Trump administration has sought to reverse protections for LGBTQ people. The crystal clear reasoning in Bostock provides a strong legal basis to challenge those attempts. It also boosts challenges to other anti-LGBTQ Trump policies, including the transgender military ban which GLAD continues to fight in court. 

Litigation establishing the Bostock analysis in other areas will take time, of course. Federal and many state laws still leave too many LGBTQ people and others unprotected in critical areas of life, including access to public places like stores or public transportation as well as in vital federally-funded social services. GLAD’s work is far from done. But the Bostock ruling is truly a cause for celebration as we continue fighting to ensure discrimination is off limits in every arena, and that the words of our civil rights statutes have meaning and real-world impacts for all Americans. 

GLAD plaintiffs on why employment protections matter

Diana Smithson and Jacqueline Cote
Diana Smithson and Jacqueline Cote. Photo: 777 Portraits Myrtle Beach, SC

“The company I worked for (Walmart) always touted itself as diverse, inclusive, and like a family. At first, I believed it was true. All that changed when I was told I couldn’t add my legal wife to my medical insurance. There’s absolutely no reason that who a person loves and shares their life with should give employers an opportunity to treat them differently than any other person.”

– Jackie Cote, former plaintiff in Cote v. Walmart.

Nic Talbott
Nic Talbott

“I know what it’s like to be told I can’t do a job I’m qualified for just because I’m transgender. This ruling is an important step to ensure LGBTQ people can do what we all want: to work hard, support ourselves and our families, and contribute to our communities. Especially now when so many have lost jobs and are struggling, the last thing we should be doing is erecting barriers that keep people who want to work and contribute from doing so. It only hurts our communities and our national security when we allow bias to keep qualified, dedicated people from doing their jobs.” 

– Nic Talbott, plaintiff, Stockman v. Trumpchallenging the transgender military ban.

Alexander Pangborn (right) with his wife Katherine

“Employment discrimination is wrong, no matter the reason. If I am qualified to do the job and perform to the best of my ability, the fact that I am transgender should have no impact on my job security or being treated as an equal to my colleagues. There are far too many people living in areas of our country that have little to no protections for LGBTQ employees. The decision from the Supreme Court recognizes that a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation is not an excuse for employers to discriminate and provides protections at a federal level.” 

– Alexander Pangborn, plaintiff, Pangborn v. Ascend

Click here to learn more and read the entire Summer 2020 issue of GLAD Briefs.