Despite expanding marriage rights, protection from employment discrimination continues to elude most LGBT Americans

This guest post by author Catherine Connell, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom, considers recent developments protecting LGBT employees from discrimination.

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Catherine Connell

With all the exciting recent news regarding changes to the legality of same-sex marriage, it can be easy to forget about other legal rights lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans are still struggling to secure, including the right to employment. Since 1974, legislators and LGBT policy advocates have tried—and thus far, failed—to pass federal nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual identity and gender expression[1]. In April 2013, the reality of employment safeguards for LGBTs seemed just within grasp, when a transgender-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed the US Senate. Unfortunately, the Republican House Majority leadership prevented the bill from coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. Even worse, recent changes regarding religious exemptions for enforcing LGBT rights ordinances further threaten the patchwork of employment protections that do exist.

Now, two years later, legislators are expected to introduce a new version of ENDA sometime this month. This will be the eleventh time this bill has been introduced into Congress; until it is passed, it’s up to states and local government to provide nondiscrimination protections for their LGBT workers. At the time of this writing, one can be legally fired on the basis of sexual identity and/or gender expression in more than half of the United States.

In 2008, I interviewed gay and lesbian teachers in California, a state with strong nondiscrimination policies for LGBT workers, and in Texas, a state with only a handful of county or municipal laws that protect them. I focused my research on teachers because they are among the most vulnerable of LGBT workers. While this research focused specifically on gays and lesbians, its findings are also relevant for bisexual and especially transgender workers, who face similar—if not markedly more hostile—working conditions.

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School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom

As I discuss in my book, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom, the policy environment was a crucial factor in gay and lesbian teachers’ decision-making processes about whether and how to come out on the job. Also important were the levels of gay-friendliness in their individual schools—some schools in California could be incredibly hostile environments for gay and lesbian teachers despite a supportive policy context, just as some schools in Texas could be remarkably welcoming. Gender and race mattered, too—gender nonconforming teachers and teachers of color had to contend with more difficult coming out environments than others. That said, the differences between gay and lesbian teachers who do have sexuality nondiscrimination protections and those who don’t are striking. One teacher told me he moved to California specifically for its protections for LGBT teachers, while a Texas teacher recounted how the very public firings of an unmarried pregnant teacher and a gay teacher in her district convinced her not to disclose her sexuality to even her closest colleagues. Clearly, federal legislation like ENDA is sorely needed to help teachers feel safe at work.

Still, passing the legislation is only the first step. I also found that many teachers in both states were unaware of the protections (or lack thereof) available to them. Several teachers in California did not know about the statewide policies that prohibited their employers and coworkers from sexual identity discrimination. In Texas, more than half the teachers I interviewed were unclear on the local and statewide policy environment regarding LGBT employment. Very few knew about the existence of county or municipal protections in cities like Austin, Houston, and Forth Worth, including the teachers who worked in those areas. For example, when I asked one teacher if she knew about her local level protections, she replied, “No, I haven’t got a clue. I haven’t got a clue. I have no idea whether or not I could be fired outright by the school district for being gay.” She was not alone in her lack of awareness: more than half of the teachers who were covered at the city, county, and/or district level in Texas didn’t know about it. More visible and expansive legislation is crucial to the protection of LGBT workers—until they are informed about their legal rights, any such protections are virtually useless.

Of course, even teachers who worked in gay-friendly legal contexts and who knew their rights could be wary of disclosing their sexual identity at school. As one teacher put it, “Even in the hiring paperwork that I signed, it says they don’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But it’s just one of those things that—just because it says it, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t find other reasons, you know? So I still watch it.” Another agreed, “[the nondiscrimination law] could be overturned…or [they could] look the other way. I think principals wouldn’t support you, the administration wouldn’t support you.” While nondiscrimination policy can empower some teachers, it’s clear that more work must be done to help gay and lesbian teachers and by extension, LGBT workers more generally, feel truly protected. Still, extending employment nondiscrimination policy to include all LGBTs across the US is a crucial first step toward creating more safe and secure working conditions for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens.

 

Catherine Connell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University.


 

[1] Only some of the many employment nondiscrimination bills introduced since 1974 have included protection on the basis of gender expression, which protects transgender and gender nonconforming employees.