Following decisions by the U.S. Department of Labor and other federal agencies that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to transgender individuals, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed its first two transgender discrimination lawsuits on Thursday.
These EEOC lawsuits claim Lakeland Eye Clinic in Florida and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan violated Title VII's prohibition against gender discrimination when they fired employees for being transgender. According to the Miami Herald, the Lakeland Eye Clinic case asserts that the firing of Brandi Branson was "motivated by sex-based considerations."
Defendant's [the clinic's] decision to terminate Branson was motivated by sex-based considerations. Specifically, Defendant terminated Branson because Branson is transgender, because of Branson's transition from male to female, and/or because Branson did not conform to the Defendant's sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.
The Human Rights Commission is reporting that in the other case, "Amiee Stephens was fired from R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home, Inc., in Michigan after informing her employer that she was transitioning from male to female and would be dressing appropriately to represent her transition as a woman."
The decision by the EEOC to act directly in these cases is not only unusual, it is landmark. It's a much bigger deal than the (admittedly boring to most people) legislative and legalistic language of the cases themselves might make it seem. Although this decision is in line with the ruling in Macy v. Holder where the EEOC "determined that discrimination based on an individual's gender identity is sex discrimination and thus constitutes a violation" of Title VII, it's not common for the EEOC to get directly involved in cases after consultation. Usually, the services provided by the EEOC are to help complainants figure out if they have a case and whether or not to pursue that case (as I learned in Law For Women: Law of Sex-Discrimination, a course I took in graduate school).
So, what's so special about these cases? They're first, and more to the point, they're representative. Robert Weisberg who is the Florida regional attorney for the commission said in a statement that the EEOC felt Branson and Stephens' narratives are representative of many transgender discrimination cases. Most of which are never noticed and never prosecuted.
The issue of coverage for transgender individuals was a question that needed further development as a community that's been subjected to severe and pervasive discrimination. We hope that this complaint and this litigation serves as an educational opportunity for the public, for employers at large and for other individuals that may be discriminated against.
According to study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 81 percent of transgender participants in the survey experienced harassment on the job and 56 percent experienced demotion, side-lining, firing, or other "adverse job action." Hardly surprising to me, as I have experienced this myself. In March I was faced with a "contract non-renewal." While completely legal, this was also quite surprising. Although not provable, and pretense was offered, I have heard from other employees that my gender identity was a factor. It is a major reason why I am currently "stealth" in the current position I have obtained.
The EEOC could have chosen simply to advise Branson and Stephens they had cases so they could obtain counsels and file suit. However, the EEOC is sending a strong message that the United States will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of gender identity/transgender status by handling these cases itself and putting the full weight of the department behind their prosecution.
Image via Eric Von Seggern/Shutterstock.