Expanding Opportunity for LGBTQ+ People in Higher Education and the Workplace

By Rosa M. García, Molly Bashay, and Asha Banerjee

Last month, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision involving the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. On June 15, the Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay or transgender employees on the basis of sex, sexual identity, and gender expression. For decades, the Civil Rights Act has protected employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. By issuing this decision, the Court made clear that employment discrimination for LGBTQ+ people is unlawful. Before this decision, only 21 states had specific laws banning bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and about half of the LGBTQ+ population lived in states without any protections. Along with expanding employment protections, the ruling in the Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia has the potential to increase educational and workforce development opportunities for members of the LGBTQ+ community who are college students and workers, particularly for people with low incomes, people of color, and immigrants – individuals who could greatly benefit from these opportunities and protections.

This ruling is important for LGBTQ+ postsecondary students of color and their economic security for several reasons. Quite often, LGBTQ+ students of color disproportionately experience harassment and discrimination on college campuses and don’t receive critical supports such as financial aid, counseling, mental health services, public benefits, and other resources they need for educational success. A 2019 campus climate survey found that 65 percent of undergraduate students listed as transgender, nonbinary/genderqueer, questioning, or unlisted experienced harassing behavior since enrolling. Moving forward, college leaders will have to do more to address the intersectional impacts for LBGTQ+ students based on race and sexual and gender identity and work to improve campus climates for LGBTQ+ students of color to ensure their success.

In the workforce, members of the LGBTQ+ community face discrimination in accessing good jobs. Systemic racism and stereotypical ideologies about LGBTQ+ people of color continue to plague the workplace. For instance, a 2017 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and National Public Radio found that LGBTQ+ people of color are at least twice as likely as white LGBTQ+ people to report being personally discriminated against because they are LGBTQ+ when applying for jobs. While the COVID-19 pandemic has only made it more difficult for LGBTQ+ people of color to access postsecondary education, workforce development opportunities, and good jobs, this Court ruling will help ensure that LGBTQ+ people of color have greater access to these opportunities while in college and upon graduation, so that they can provide for themselves and their families.

This decision is also a significant victory for the gay rights movement. It builds on more than 50 years of political activism and organizing, which truly blossomed on June 28, 1969—the historic day when gay activists and community members fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, one of the few places in New York City where LGBTQ+ people could gather and express themselves openly. This uprising sparked an international movement for gay rights that has only grown in strength and racial and ethnic diversity since. UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that of the 13 million LGBTQ+ people living in the United States, 5.6 percent identified as American Indian and Alaska Native, 4.6 percent as Black, 6.0 percent as Latinx, and 4.4 percent as Asian and Pacific Islander. An estimated 8.1 million LGBTQ+ workers are ages 16 and older. Furthermore, approximately 81,000 LGBTQ+ Dreamers reside in the United States, and 39,000 have participated in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program or DACA.

While this decision marks a step forward in a long journey for equity and civil rights, LGBTQ+ people of color continue to experience persistent racial inequalities. That’s why federal, state, and local policy makers must pursue laws, policies, and practices that build on the Court’s historic decision and protect LGBTQ+ people of color from racial discrimination in higher education and the workplace. College leaders must support LGBTQ+ people, particularly people of color and people with low incomes, in fully accessing an affordable high-quality postsecondary education, the critical supports they need to thrive in college, and workforce development opportunities leading to good jobs. Most importantly, we must all work to treat LGBTQ+ people with fairness and dignity—in our workplaces, in higher education, and in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities.