Wednesday, April 25, 2012

EEOC pronounces protections for transgender workers

Title VII does not, on its face, protect transgender workers from discrimination. Increasingly, however, courts have extended its protections under the umbrella of Title VII’s protections against sex-stereotyping-as-gender-discrimination, as first explained 23 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decision:

In saying that gender played a motivating part in an employment decision, we mean that, if we asked the employer at the moment of the decision what its reasons were and if we received a truthful response, one of those reasons would be that the applicant or employee was a woman. In the specific context of sex stereotyping, an employer who acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender.

Earlier this week, the EEOC made what might be the most significant pronouncement to date on the issue of the protection of transgender as gender discrimination. Macy v. Holder [pdf] involved a transgender woman, Mia Macy, who claimed that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms denied her a job after she announced she was transitioning from male to female.

In reinstating Macy’s Title VII claim, the EEOC concluded:

That Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination proscribes gender discrimination, and not just discrimination on the basis of biological sex, is important…. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex whether motivated by hostility by a desire to protect people or a certain gender, by assumptions that disadvantage men, by gender stereotypes, or by the desire to accommodate other people's prejudices or discomfort….

Thus, we conclude that intentional discrimination against a transgender individual because that person is transgender is, by definition, discrimination “based on … sex,” and such discrimination therefore violates Title VII.

While this opinion is not binding on courts, one cannot overstate the significance of the fact that the agency responsible for enforcing the federal EEO laws has made this broad pronouncement. Many employers operate under the belief that they are free to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity because Title VII lacks no facial prohibition. As this case illustrates, that belief, no matter how commonly held, might be mistaken.

The EEOC and I disagree on a lot. (See criminal background checks as hiring criteria). Yet, on this issue, we are on the same page. It strikes me as appalling that in the year 2012 there are still minority groups against whom it remains facially legal to discriminate. Already, 21 states prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment, 16 of which also prohibit gender identity discrimination; another 140 cities and counties have similar laws. Many companies have also made the private decision to prohibit this type of discrimination in their individual workplaces.

For the uncovered, this EEOC decision signals that the time is coming when this type of discrimination will no longer be an open issue. I suggest you get on the bandwagon now, and send a signal to all of your employees that you are a business of inclusion, not one of bigotry and exclusion.

[Hat tip: The Proactive Employer / Stephanie Thomas]