This opinion article by Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur and SF LGBT Center Executive Director Rebecca Rolfe was originally published by OUT Magazine on October 8, 2019.
Imagine going to work, just like you have every day for the past 10 years. You get dressed, pop in your headphones, grab a coffee and take the bus to your office. When you arrive, your boss tells you they’ve discovered a social media post of you and your partner at a recent LGBTQ+ pride event. You weren’t out to your colleagues. You hadn’t done anything wrong. But now you are being fired — simply for being because of your identity. You leave the office defeated: How will you pay the bills? How will you support your family? How is this legal?
For millions of LGBTQ+ workers in 28 states across the country, this horror story is a looming reality. Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hear three cases that decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ workers from being discriminated against or fired for being who they are. The impact cannot be underscored enough. They are possibly the most consequential cases for our community since the Obergefell marriage equality decision.
If the Supreme Court rules against LGBTQ+ employees, the gender-nonconforming bank teller in Florida, the transgender construction worker in Montana, the newly out basketball coach in Pennsylvania, and all the LGBTQ+ people in between are at risk of being fired.
But even for folks in “blue states” like California, where residents enjoy the nation’s strongest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights protections, the court’s decision could have a significant impact. If the court says that federal civil rights laws don’t protect LGBTQ+ from the discrimination, the ruling will embolden anti-LGBTQ+ extremists across the country — including in our own backyards — looking to roll back advancements in the fight for equality.
This past summer, anti-LGBTQ+ extremists and white supremacists set their eyes on two cities for their so-called “straight pride” parades: Modesto, California and Boston, Massachusetts. Both of those events, the latter of which marched down the streets in Boston in August, were targeted at states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And in Orange County, California, conservatives are using anti-LGBTQ+ misinformation to scare parents into opposing inclusive education policies.
These far-right zealots show us that no zip code is exempt from discrimination and harassment, regardless of how inclusive our laws may be. And many of us take for granted that our state and local protections are as progressive as we are. But of the states that have yet to pass a comprehensive, statewide nondiscrimination law protecting LGBTQ+ people, seven voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Eight have Democratic governors.
The battle for equality is one for legal protections and nondiscrimination policies, but it’s also a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. LGBTQ+ people across the country should take these three Supreme Court cases as a clarion call that we aren’t done fighting for full, lived equality — not even close.
From day one, the Trump-Pence Administration has attacked transgender healthcare, refused to support LGBTQ+ students, and locked children and LGBTQ+ migrants in cages at the border. In August, Trump touted his endorsement from the Log Cabin Republicans, saying he has “done very well with that community,” on the same day that his administration filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to legalize firing workers based on sexual orientation. When Trump and Pence attack our community, they aren’t doing it state by state; they are doing it to the whole country.
Win or lose the Supreme Court cases, there is a surefire way to help protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in every arena — from employment to housing to healthcare — and that is by passing the Equality Act. In May, the pro-equality majority in the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act with bipartisan support. Where’s the bill now? Collecting dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk. If we pass the Equality Act, we can override whatever the Supreme Court decides in the three upcoming cases and protect everyone in every single state, plain and simple.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” California has led the nation in the fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights and social justice, but that doesn’t make any of us immune to anti-LGBTQ+ forces. And part of leading is also making sure our values don’t end at the state’s borders.
So what can you do to protect LGBTQ+ workers? Before, on and after October 8, tell your family, friends, and loved ones that these cases matter to everyone — from California to Maine and from LGBTQ+ folks to non-LGBTQ+ folks — and call on Sen. McConnell to put the Equality Act up for a vote. Red state or blue state, good laws or bad laws, our work is from over, and we won’t stop until it is done.
Rebecca Rolfe is the Executive Director of the San Francisco LGBT Center. Rick Zbur is the Executive Director of Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization.