Three Bold Moves Our Movement Must Embrace in the Wake of the Landmark LGBTQ Supreme Court Decision
I felt a jolt when I heard the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling: the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in hiring, promoting, and firing) also protects LGBTQ workers.
As a queer worker, I greeted this ruling with a sigh of relief: up until June 15 fewer than half the states had explicit protections for LGBTQ workers.
The ruling came as a huge surprise. Given the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, many LGBTQ pundits had assumed the ruling would go against us, and organizations like mine were bracing for a dire outcome.
But as a non-binary Black worker who has worked in states where Black and LGBTQ workers have been protected for some time, I immediately had questions about how this decision would play out on the ground. I watched and winced as I saw a rush of my queer siblings come out on LinkedIn and in their workplaces after the ruling—only to be met by a slew of negative reactions.
Here is where we as movement-builders and workplace advocates must be absolutely clear. Just because a workplace cannot legally fire you for being LGBTQ does not mean they have to: 1) like you; 2) give you opportunities to advance; or 3) keep you on as staff, as long as they can find another reason to let you go.
In the wake of the SCOTUS decision, I am deeply afraid that many people will learn this lesson the hard way. As many Black people like me know, discrimination is hard to prove in a system that was set up not to include you. This Supreme Court ruling changes none of that.
So, how do we respond as we survey this milestone that is just one of many that will get us to queer and trans liberation? I have three thoughts to offer movement-builders and advocates who aim to support LGBTQ workers.
First, we need to educate workers on these protections immediately. While I do not advocate dictating what LGBTQ people should do or say in the workplace, we must make sure people understand the extent to which they are protected by federal law. Workers must be informed and grounded in the still very present work that needs to be done to keep LGBTQ people safe in the workplace.
One clear example can be found in a study by the Center for American Progress. It showed that anywhere from 11 percent to 28 percent of LGBTQ people reported that they lost a promotion because of their sexual orientation, and that 27 percent of transgender workers reported having been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their transgender identity.
Even with clearer protections across the country, there will still be religious exemption loopholes and lack of enforcement. People must have the facts before making decisions that can have serious implications for their long-term careers or short-term gigs. These dire statistics will not improve without a concerted effort to educate and organize.
Second, we must build up structures for enforcement now. Given the Supreme Court decision, people will urgently need an organization to help them when they see that their rights have been violated. Workers with unions already have that help, but for nonunion LGBTQ workers, the challenge of finding the time and confidence to navigate a slow, complex, and costly legal system, at the risk of potentially losing their job, means that many instances of discrimination will go unreported. And of course we need more protections so that more workers can form unions.
Finally, we must find innovative ways to protect LGBTQ workers by forming alliances between the labor and LGBTQ movement. One way is to support progressive worker organizations that are advancing legislation to end “at-will” employment. At-will employment is a policy that gives employers free rein to terminate employees for any reason—as long as they say it has nothing to do with the identities covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In practice, at-will employment gives employers a blank check to use, even though we have anti-discrimination laws. Any worker in the United States without a union is an at-will employee. Unions, worker justice organizations, and the LGBTQ movement should come together to help end at-will employment for all.
There is a glimmer of hope to close this loophole. In Philadelphia, a group of city workers united, fought, and won a campaign, without forming a union, to end at-will employment at their job: parking attendants. Now, a handful of progressive worker organizations are reviewing this “just cause” policy, which makes it illegal to fire workers without warnings and ample proof of a just cause, with the aim of seeing if it can be scaled up in their own states, such as Wisconsin and Illinois.
The organization I run, the National LGBTQ Workers Center, is run entirely by queer and trans Black, Brown, and Indigenous volunteers. We are working on all three of these fronts—but we need help. In Chicago, our flagship chapter is fundraising to launch an LGBTQ Workers Hotline. This hotline will be a way for LGBTQ workers to connect to resources, to community, and to an organizing space that is 100 percent unapologetically on the side of workers. We provide regular workers’ rights trainings, such as on how to form a union, we offer a healing space via Zoom where folks can share what is happening in their workplaces and get plugged into organizing opportunities, and we support organizations like Raise the Floor Alliance who are organizing for just-cause laws to end at-will employment.
On that morning a few short weeks ago, I cheered the unexpected Supreme Court ruling confirming the rights of LGBTQ workers with all my heart. It was a long time coming. But, even as we celebrate, let’s look clearly at the road ahead. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are miles away from our destination, which is justice and liberation for all working-class people, including our queer and trans siblings.
Joan Jones (she/they pronouns) is executive director at SEIU Washington State Council. In their free time, they moonlight as president of the National LGBTQ Workers Center and are an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, UK.