Does Vermont have an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination in employment?

Yes.  Vermont was among the first states to pass a comprehensive statewide law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in 1992 (See, e.g., 21 V.S.A. § 495 (employment)). “Sexual orientation” is defined as “female or male homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality (1 V.S.A. § 143).

In May, 2007, Vermont became the third state in New England to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity (Public Act 41, An Act Relating to Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity, 2007-2008 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Vt. 2007)). The law defines gender identity as “an individual’s actual or perceived gender identity, or gender-related characteristics intrinsically related to an individual’s gender or gender-identity, regardless of the individual’s assigned sex at birth” (1 V.S.A § 144).

Does it also protect people perceived to be LGBT in employment?

As to sexual orientation, maybe.  Although the anti-discrimination laws themselves do not distinguish between actual and perceived sexual orientation, the questionnaire used by the Civil Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office allows people to complain of discrimination on account of both sexual orientation and perceived sexual orientation.  However, the Human Rights Commission does not make this distinction in its employment complaint form.  There is no case law on this.  (Note:  The school harassment law, which is discussed below in the Students’ Rights section, does explicitly provide protection for students and their family members who are or are perceived of as gay, lesbian or bisexual.  The hate crime law, discussed below, also applies to actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.)

As to gender identity, and as noted above, gender identity is defined as wither “actual or perceived gender identity.” This language includes discrimination based upon perception.

To whom does the non-discrimination law apply and what does it forbid?

To whom does the non-discrimination law apply and what does it forbid?

The non-discrimination law prohibits any employer, employment agency or labor organization from discriminating against any individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity (21 V.S.A. § 495 (a)(1)). This applies to both private and government employers and covers most significant job actions, such as hiring, firing, failure to promote, demotion, excessive discipline, harassment and different treatment of the employee and similarly situated co-workers (21 V.S.A. § 495 (a); § 495d(1) (definition of employer)).

In addition, employment agencies may not participate in discrimination by refusing to classify or refer their customers for employment or otherwise discriminate because of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Unions may not deny union membership or otherwise discriminate against its members because of sexual orientation or gender identity (21 V.S.A. § 495 (a)(4)).

The law also forbids these entities from advertising in such a way as to restrict employment or membership because of sexual orientation or gender identity (21 V.S.A. § 495 (a)(2)).

Does the law apply to every employer in Vermont?

No. As broad as the law is, there are exceptions to its application.

  • An employer, agency or labor organization may defend against a discrimination claim by arguing that a “bona fide occupational qualification” of the particular job to have a non-LGBT employee fill it (21 V.S.A. § 495(a)). There are no general occupational exemptions from the reach of the non-discrimination law, however, and this defense is very rarely successful.
  • As to sexual orientation and gender identity, religious organizations – and charitable or educational organizations operated, supervised or controlled by a religious organization – are exempt from the law to the extent that they give a “preference to persons of the same religion or denomination” or take “any action with respect to matters of which is calculated by the organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained (21 V.S.A. § 495(e)). This exemption, however, is not a carte blanche for an employer to use his or her religious beliefs as a justification for discriminating against persons because of their sexual orientation or actual or perceived gender identity.

Does the Vermont law prohibit sexual harassment?

Yes. Sexual harassment is specifically prohibited under the law. Vermont law defines sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

  • submission to that conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment; or
  • submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a component of the basis for employment decisions affecting that individual; or
  • the conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment (21 V.S.A. § 495d (13)).

Because sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, a claim of harassment can be pursued in the same ways as other discrimination claims, as discussed below.

In addition to prohibiting sexual harassment, Vermont law requires all employers, employment agencies and labor organizations to ensure a workplace free of sexual harassment by adopting a policy against sexual harassment, posting a notice outlining that policy, and providing all employees an individual written copy of the policy (21 V.S.A. § 495h).

It is as unlawful to sexually harass a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person as it is to harass anyone else. Some harassment is specifically anti-gay and may be more fairly characterized as harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. Other harassment is because of the person’s actual or perceived gender identity and may be characterized as harassment on the basis of gender identity.  Still other harassment is sexual in nature and more appropriately categorized as sexual harassment.  All these types of harassment can happen to the same person, and all are forbidden under Vermont state law.

Both the United States Supreme Court and several state courts have found same-sex sexual harassment to violate sexual harassment laws (compare Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75, 118 S.Ct. 998 (1998) (man can sue for sexual harassment by other men under federal sexual harassment laws)).