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LGBTQ+ Rights in the US Workplace

Guest Blogger: Ariel Torres, Associate Director, Lehigh University Pride Center

I never really made it a point to come out to anyone. Even though I grew up in a supportive environment, I didn’t really feel comfortable saying the words “I’m gay.” And while I became more confident in my identity as an adult, the fear persisted and the idea of being my true self in a professional work setting terrified me for a long time. It wasn’t until I landed a position as pride programs manager for Allentown’s Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center that I felt a true sense of belonging and security at work. The fear of being out or bringing your authentic self to work is not an uncommon experience for members of the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that the supreme court finally held that firing or barring employment from individuals because of their sexual orientation or transgender status violates Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination. In honor of LGBTQ+ History Month, I think it’s important to discuss the history of employment discrimination in the U.S. and celebrate the progress that has been made to protect and support LGBTQ+ people at work.

LGBTQ+ History Month: A Modern History of LGBTQ+ Rights in the Workplace

In the 1950s, the U.S. witnessed a massive and direct attack on the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace called the Lavender Scare. The Lavender Scare was a national panic about homosexual people in the United States government which led to their mass dismissal from government service at the national, state and local levels. And the fear went even beyond Washington, permeating the entertainment industry in Hollywood and New York City as people were afraid they would be fired if their employers found out they were queer. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the Lavender Scare, which continued through 1975.

Milestones and Setbacks in the Fight for Workplace Equality:

1973 – Lambda Legal is formed, a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of LGBT people through impact litigation. Its first legal fight is defending and winning the right to operate as a non-profit in the New York Supreme Court.

1975 – A federal gay rights bill is introduced to counter discrimination based on sexual orientation. The bill goes to the Judiciary Committee but is never brought for consideration.

1982 – Wisconsin is the first state to pass a law against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

1993 – President Clinton signs a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ policy which allows homosexuals to serve in the military – but only if they are not open about their sexual orientation.

1993 – Lambda Legal wins a case requiring New York City to provide equal benefits to domestic partners of city employees and dependent children.

1993 – Minnesota passes the Human Rights Act and becomes the first state to ban employment discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.

1995 – President Clinton signs an executive order forbidding the Federal Government from denying security clearances to homosexuals because of their sexual orientation.

1998 – President Clinton signs an executive order amending earlier legislation to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation in the competitive service of the federal civilian workforce.

2002 – The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) launches their Corporate Equality Index (CEI), a tool to rate workplaces on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer equality. The first CEI rated employers on seven criteria that remain the basis for a scoring system still in place today.

2005 – The California Supreme Court rules that businesses in the state must provide the same benefits to registered domestic partners as they offer spouses.

2011 – ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed.

2012 – The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rules that the federal discrimination law will now protect employees based on gender identity.

2014 – President Obama signs an executive order making it illegal to fire or discriminate against employees of federal contractors based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In particular, it prohibits discrimination against transgender employees of the federal government.

2016 – The Pentagon lifts a ban on transgender people serving in the US military.

2017 – President Trump’s administration attempts to roll back the few existing protections for LGBTQ people with efforts to ban transgender troops and a ‘license to discriminate’ order that enables the government to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens in the name of religious freedom.

2018 – The Second Circuit Court of Appeals makes a landmark ruling that discrimination by sexual orientation is sex discrimination.

2018 – New Hampshire becomes the 20th state in the U.S. to prohibit discrimination based upon gender identity.

2020 - June 15th, 2020 in Bostock v. Clayton County the supreme court held that firing or barring employment from individuals because of their sexual orientation or transgender status violates Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination because of sex. This federal ruling is one of the most important legal decisions regarding LGBT rights in the United States, along with Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

I always wonder how different my life would be if I had not grown up with an instilled fear that I might not progress in my professional life because of my sexuality. It took me a long time to feel comfortable pursuing professional employment opportunities and to believe that I was worthy of a meaningful career. But now, as the Associate Director for Lehigh’s Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, I am so happy to be able to honor my past by serving in a position where I can help queer students thrive as their authentic selves every single day.

Here are 5 resources that can help you move forward with confidence and navigate the world of work as an LGBTQ+ person:

  1. Find an LGBTQ+ Mentor: Lehigh Connects or the Lehigh Out List

  2. Blog post: Signs of an LGBTQ+ Inclusive Workplace

  3. Blog post: Authenticity in the Workplace

  4. DEI Recognized Employers on Handshake

  5. Seek guidance and support from the Pride Center Staff

  6. Handshake resource: Career resources for LGBTQ+ job and internship seeker

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