Today’s LGBTQ Supreme Court Victory Sits on the Shoulders of Black Americans’ Vital Contributions
Despite winning marriage equality throughout the U.S. five years ago, many did not know that it was still legal to fire an LGBTQ person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in 25 of the 50 states. It is estimated that 4 of every 10 LGBTQ Americans live in one of those 25 states, meaning they could have been fired from their jobs at any time for being LGBTQ.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the lives of those millions of LGBTQ Americans with a decision that the federal law against employment discrimination — the 1964 Civil Rights Act — also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or on gender identity. Today’s decision will provide that protection immediately in all 50 states.
The decision (which you can read in its entirety here) was surprising because it was written by President Donald Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, and joined by President George W. Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, along with the four liberal members of the Court.
Justice Gorsuch wrote: “In our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There, in Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. 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. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids. … An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.”
The three cases decided by the Court today involved Gerald Bostock, a gay man who was fired from his county government job as a social worker for children after they learned that he played in a gay softball league; a gay man, Daniel Zarda, who was fired from his job as a skydiving instructor after his employer found out he was gay; and Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was fired from her job at a funeral home after she told them that she would be completing her gender transition as a woman. Sadly, both Zarda and Stephens passed away recently, but their estates continued the legal fights for them.
It is especially important for the LGBTQ community to recognize the vital contributions of Black Americans in finally securing the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that today’s decision is based on. In the early 1960s, it was only after the U.S. public saw television images of Black Americans peacefully protesting for their civil rights being attacked by police officers with water cannons, police dogs, and batons that public opinion changed to support a federal law prohibiting discrimination.
We now are living through another potential turning point in U.S. history, when so many people, companies, and organizations across the United States are rising up to declare once again that Black Lives Matter, and to call for an end to the continuing police violence against Black Americans such as Rayshard Brooks in Georgia, George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Tony McDade in Florida, and so many others.
As we celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court victory today, all LGBTQ persons should acknowledge and reflect on how connected our struggle for equality and freedom is to the continuing struggle of Black Americans against the systemic racism that persists, and continues to have literally life and death consequences. As LGBTQ people, we should respond to today’s Court decision with a renewed commitment to continue to speak out, march, stand up, act up, and fight back against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in all their forms. We should work even harder at making the United States actually live up to its promise of equality and freedom for everyone.
Ignatius Bau is a former civil rights attorney in San Francisco, California.
Featured image at top, of LGBTQ activists gathered in front of the United States Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2019, is by