Photo by Jasmin Sessler
Creating and sustaining pro-LGBTQ+ policies can help law firms construct equal working conditions for all employees.
by Ashley Meadows
Frank Kameny—astronomer and World War II veteran—was fired in 1958 from his job with the federal government after his supervisors confronted him with reports that he was gay. He petitioned the Supreme Court for relief in recognition of his civil rights—considered the first LBGTQ+ civil rights case brought before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court denied his case, but Kameny continued to fight back. In 1965, four years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, Kameny led a small group of activists in the first gay rights demonstration outside of the White House.
More recently, Aimee Stephens was fired from her position as a funeral director, after she announced in a letter to her co-workers that she was transgender and would begin living as a woman. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which brought a cause of action against her former employer for violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in federal district court. When asked in court, Thomas Rost—the owner of the funeral homes—said he terminated Ms. Stephens because ‘ he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. He wanted to dress as a woman.’
Ms. Stephens won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Soon after, her employer petitioned the Supreme Court. Her case was one of three before the Supreme Court to determine whether Title VII under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ employees from workplace discrimination. On Monday, June 15th, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ workers against discrimination in the workplace.
Why is this important?
In 2019, 17 states offered no protections to gay, bisexual, or transgender employees, which left workers exposed to workplace harassment and discrimination. Until the recent Supreme Court ruling, it was legal to terminate employees for being gay, bisexual, or transgender—in more than half of the states. Amid global protests and demonstrations revolving around the unjust treatment of transgender people, specifically those of color, the Supreme Court’s decision is notable progress for LGBTQ+ rights by extending protections against workplace discrimination to millions of LGBTQ+ Americans.
Although the Supreme Court’s decision is a step in the right direction, there are still ways that law firms, lawyers, and other members of the legal community can build a workplace environment that protects LBGTQ+ employees from discrimination.
Building a work environment that includes LGBTQ+ workers is imperative to employee happiness and retention.
In recent years, there has been pressure on employers to create equitable conditions for all employees.
The LGBTQ+ community experiences inequities in the workplace at a high rate—with 59% of LGBTQ+ people stating that they are less likely to secure employment opportunities due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2017 Harvard survey. A 2018 Human Rights Campaign report found that 46% of American workers were not openly LGBTQ+ at work in fear of retaliation or isolation.
Employers must create a safer and more inclusive working environment, policies that protect LGBTQ+ workers are essential.
There are several ways for law firms to move toward becoming more LGBTQ+ inclusive. Law firms can modernize anti-harassment training by including situations realistic and representative of the LGBTQ+ community, create inclusive policies that use current LGBTQ+ terminology, and include LGBTQ+ demographics in diversity and inclusion data. Policies and harassment-prevention measures are only effective if employees know that they exist. Law firms must ensure LGBTQ+ policies are well-communicated, understood, and upheld by all lawyers and staff members.
Also, firms can engage in pro-bono and outreach work supporting LGBTQ+ organizations, especially organizations that provide services to low-income LGBTQ+ clients. For information about LGBTQ+ pro-bono work, please check on the LGBT Legal Aid Guide from the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
For additional resources, be sure to check out the LGBT Bar’s website for upcoming events and ways to get involved.