LGBTQ+ Victory takes Next Steps toward Civil Rights and Racial Justice

“In our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision holding that employers cannot fire someone for being gay or transgender. The Civil Rights Act enshrined principles of human dignity and equality in federal law, ending segregation in public places and banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  

The Act’s promise has borne out in ways no one could have envisioned in 1964. But much remains unfulfilled, with race and sex discrimination still preventing equal access to jobs, equitable pay, housing, and health care.  

The Court’s decision provides critical safeguards to at least 8 million LGBTQ+* individuals, about half of whom live in states with no similar anti-discrimination protections. In a trio of cases the Court held that it is illegal for employers to fire someone for being gay or transgender. This definitively resolves that Title VII of the Act, prohibiting discrimination “because of … sex,” encompasses sexual orientation or gender identity.  

The facts of the cases reflect the ugly bias many LGBTQ+ people experience: 

  • Aimee Stephens was fired after announcing to her employer of six years she planned to “live and work full time as a woman.”  
  • Donald Zarda was fired days after mentioning he was gay, despite having worked as a skydiving instructor for several seasons. 
  • Gerald Bostock was fired after working for Clayton County, Georgia as a child welfare advocate for a decade. 

As the Williams Institute noted in an amicus brief, “pervasive workplace discrimination can have devastating effects economically and psychologically, and it compounds the discrimination that transgender people face in other aspects of public and private life.” 

With today’s record unemployment and pervasive inequity against LGBTQ+ people and people of color, prohibiting workplace discrimination is critical to enhancing their economic security. A significant number of LGBT individuals are unemployed and live in poverty. More than a third of Black, Latinx, Native American, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander LGBT communities face hunger, a consequence of being denied employment opportunities and other protections. These hurdles are compounded by the effects of racism for LGBT people of color. Barriers to LGBT people’s economic security include discrimination in employment, housing, health care and credit. According to the Williams Institute, LGBT people living in the states that lack anti-discrimination protections “are more likely to report household incomes below $24,000 than those living in the states where workers are protected.” The Court’s decision may help drive down poverty, particularly as it reverberates through education, housing, and health care, policy areas relying on legal interpretations of Title VII. 

At this moment, while we recognize how the Civil Rights Act can confer the promise of equal employment and economic security, it is crucial to remember how we got here. This victory is rooted in the protests, sacrifices, and fight for racial justice. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that he was in Birmingham to protest injustice, including seeing “hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill … [B]lack brothers and sisters” and the smothering of his brothers “in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” 

Rampant police brutality exemplified in the killings of countless Black people—most recently George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks—along with the racial wealth gap remind us that a law alone is insufficient to address injustice. The epidemic of murder facing transgender people and Black transgender women and men, including Tony McDade, requires that the battle for genuine equality and human dignity continue in our courts, legislatures, workplaces, and streets.  

We pause to celebrate the magnitude of the Court’s decision affirming the dignity of LGBTQ+ individuals, and the courage of these plaintiffs and so many others. But we recognize the law is only as powerful as our ability to give it meaning and to enforce the Act’s prohibitions of sex discrimination and racism.  

*CLASP uses the acronym LGBTQ+ to identify a broad population. We use limiting acronyms when referencing data from subpopulations.