There's been a big victory for LGBTQ workers in the fight against discrimination

There's been a big victory for LGBTQ workers in the fight against discrimination
Tuesday’s ruling is a historic one protecting LGBTQ rights
Image: Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

It’s been a long time coming, but LGBTQ workers are finally a step closer to being truly protected from workplace discrimination, according to a ruling from a federal appeals court in Chicago. The judges determined that the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act means LGBT employees cannot be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.

This is the first time a federal appellate court has made such a ruling. It stems from the case of Kimberly Hively, who sued Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana, alleging that the school denied her promotions and eventually fired her because she’s a lesbian. A federal appeals court panel upheld the dismissal of her lawsuit last year; this ruling reversed that.

Hively sounded relieved by the new ruling in a statement issued by Lamba Legal: “I have been saying all this time that what happened to me wasn’t right and was illegal,” she said. “Now I will have my day in court, thanks to this decision. No one should be fired for being lesbian, gay, or transgender like happened to me and it’s incredibly powerful to know that the law now protects me and other LGBT workers.”

The 8-3 decision in favor of protecting LGBTQ rights was a bit of a surprise to experts as five of the judges on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents, leaving many to view the court as traditionally conservative and less likely to rule in favor of LGBTQ workers.

But several of those judges came down on the side of LGBTQ protection, including Judge Richard Posner, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan. In his opinion defending LGBTQ workers, Posner explained, “I don’t see why firing a lesbian because she is in the subset of women who are lesbian should be thought any less a form of sex discrimination than firing a woman because she’s a woman.”

“No one should be fired for being lesbian, gay, or transgender”

Much of the panel’s debate centered around the definition of the word “sex,” as included in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and whether that included sexual orientation. 

In her opinion for the majority, Judge Diane Wood wrote, “Any discomfort, disapproval, or job decision based on the fact that the complainant—woman or man—dresses differently, speaks differently, or dates or marries a same-sex partner, is a reaction purely and simply based on sex. That means that it falls within Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination.”

Judge Diane Sykes, a conservative, wrote in her dissent, “We are not authorized to infuse the text with a new or unconventional meaning or to update it to respond to changed social, economic, or political conditions.”

So what’s next? This new ruling means the case will probably make its way to the Supreme Court, because it’s unlikely the Republican-led Congress will update the Act to reflect the ruling. 

And there’s plenty of fight left to go. As of now, 18 states still hold absolutely no protection from workplace discrimination for LGBTQ employees; other protections vary from state to state. And most states still lack protection against workplace discrimination based on gender identity. 

The map below, via the Human Rights Campaign, outlines exactly what states have which protections. 

In a statement, HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said, “Today’s ruling is a monumental victory for fairness in the workplace, and for the dignity of lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans who may live in fear of losing their job based on whom they love.”

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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