A significant new frontier in the employment discrimination field is finding ways to protect employees who are fired, denied a promotion, or harassed just for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Already, 12 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression. (Another eight states have legal protections only for sexual orientation discrimination.) Those laws protect not only lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees, but also transgender employees–those whose internal sense of themselves as male or female (their “gender identity”) and/or the way they express that gender identity through their appearance, clothing, or behavior (their “gender expression”) differs from the anatomical sex they were designated at birth.
As described in Phil Duran’s excellent recent blog post, we may see similar protections enacted in federal law in the near future. LGBT advocacy organizations and others are currently lobbying members of Congress to support a version of the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would prohibit discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
In the meantime, though, courts have been increasingly open to claims brought on behalf of LGBT employees who face discrimination, using what may seem like an unexpected theory: sex discrimination. In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court held, in a case called Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, that federal sex discrimination laws protect employees who are discriminated against because of their perceived failure to conform with gender stereotypes–that is, women who are perceived as too masculine, or men who are perceived as too feminine. Price Waterhouse was a case brought by a woman who was denied a promotion at an accounting firm, despite her excellent performance, because her supervisors considered her too “macho.” They suggested that she ought to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.” The Supreme Court held that discrimination based on that kind of gender stereotyping was a form of sex discrimination.
Even though no federal law currently prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, some LGBT employees have been able to successfully use gender-stereotyping arguments to bring sex discrimination claims when they are targeted because of their actual or perceived gender nonconformity. For instance, a sex discrimination claim may be viable when a gay man is harassed because of his co-workers’ perception that he is too feminine or when a lesbian is fired because she is seen as too masculine. Sex discrimination cases brought by lesbian, gay, or bisexual employees can be challenging to win, though, because some courts have expressed concern that the gender-stereotyping theory could be used as a back door means of recognizing what are “really” sexual orientation discrimination claims. Unfairly, even when an LGBT employee is discriminated against because of gender stereotypes, some courts have denied relief simply because the plaintiff is gay or lesbian or because the discrimination appeared to be additionally motivated by anti-gay animus.
Interestingly, courts have been somewhat more receptive to gender-stereotyping claims brought by transgender employees. In a groundbreaking decision just issued on September 19, 2008, Schroer v. Billington, a Washington, D.C. federal district court found that a transsexual job applicant had been discriminated against based on “sex.” She had initially applied for the position–and been offered the job–while presenting as a man, but when she informed the employer of her intention to change her sex to female, the employer withdrew the offer. The court not only found that gender stereotypes played an unlawful role in her hiring, à la Price Waterhouse, but also held that discrimination because a person changes their sex is “literally” sex discrimination – just as discrimination against those who convert from one religion to another would plainly constitute religious discrimination. While no other court has yet recognized a sex discrimination claim based on transgender status per se, a number of other decisions have upheld sex discrimination claims brought by transgender employees where the employee can show some evidence that stereotypes played a role in the employee’s negative treatment.
The gender stereotyping theory of sex discrimination can provide valuable protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers who face discrimination because of their perceived gender nonconformity, although some courts still fixate on the employee’s status as LGBT as a justification for denying an otherwise valid sex discrimination claim. That’s why it’s imperative to pass a fully inclusive version of ENDA: to make it clear to everyone, employers and employees alike, that it’s unlawful to mistreat employees because of traits like sexual orientation or gender identity and expression that have absolutely nothing to do with job performance.
About the Author: Ilona Turner is a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. Prior to law school, she was the lobbyist for Equality California, the state’s leading LGBT political organization, where she helped win the passage of groundbreaking legislation that significantly expanded the rights of domestic partners under California law and prohibited discrimination based on gender identity and expression in employment and housing. She received her J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.