It’s No Longer Legal to Fire Someone for Being LGBTQ, Supreme Court Rules

Before today, LGBTQ staff could be fired in the majority of U.S. states without recourse

Today's decision marks the first federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans. Getty Images
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The Supreme Court ruled today that gender identity and sexual orientation should be included as protected classes under the employment section of Civil Rights Act. Before now, not only was it legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ in the majority of U.S. states, but LGBTQ people were not protected under any federal nondiscrimination laws.

The court’s ruling only covers Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which refers to discrimination in employment. That means while LGBTQ Americans now have marriage rights and employment protections nationwide, there are still no federal protections from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, or banking and credit services.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, the first of President Donald Trump’s two appointments to the bench, wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids,” wrote Gorsuch.

“Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” Gorsuch wrote. “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.”

Until now, advertising professionals and brand employees in industry hubs like Miami, Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis and Cleveland could be fired for being LGBTQ, and they would have had no recourse to sue or fight the decision.

Before June 15, 2020, LGBTQ employees could legally be fired in most U.S. states.
Movement Advancement Project

Data on the number of LGBTQ employees in any given industry can be hard to come by for several reasons. The U.S. Census does not track sexual orientation or gender identity, so there’s no information on how many Americans are LGBTQ. And because many LGBTQ people are still afraid to come out at work, some do not self-identify on hiring forms.

Regardless, today’s ruling was impactful for countless LGBTQ professionals in the industry.

“The SCOTUS decision gives the LGBTQIA+ community the chance to survive in the workplace,” said Ro Kalonaros, global manager of Omnicom’s internal productivity platform OMC Hive and LGBTQ community leader at professional social app Fishbowl. “Now we need companies to take the next step to give us the support and tools we need to thrive. We need to keep pushing as we celebrate this win.”

Kalonaros, an alum of Adweek’s executive mentorship program (her mentor was GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis), added that “inclusivity of the LGBTQIA+ employees needs to be part of every company’s business strategy.”

Heide Gardner, svp and chief diversity and inclusion officer at IPG, said, “We applaud this decision by SCOTUS–a great win for us to celebrate during Pride month at a time when we could all use some good news.”

On the heels of the Trump administration’s decision last week to remove LGBTQ people from nondiscrimination protections in healthcare and health insurance, Gardner also noted that the holding company will “reassure our LGBTQ+ talent that our policies, which also include recognizing and covering domestic partners for benefits and health care, will continue.”

While many ad professionals work in states that do offer nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people (like New York and California), the lack of federal protections tends to influence where talent is willing to live and work. The lack of federal protections can also cause stress and mental health impacts.

Astound Commerce director of data analytics and SEO Rigel Cable said he was especially happy the ruling extends to the trans community, which has faced harsh discrimination in health care and education among other sectors under the Trump administration.

“Though employment discrimination will not go away overnight because of this, the decision speaks to a deep-seated insecurity and fear that we all have as LGBTQ+ people,” Cable said. “This has been a rollercoaster of a year for LGBTQ+ rights, one that is bound to have many more lows and hopefully more highs, and it felt nice to have good news, even for just a moment.”

The Supreme Court ruling—a surprise to many, given the current bench’s conservative lean—reaches into every industry and occupation across the nation.

Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell, co-founders of the nonprofit advocacy group National LGBT Chamber of Commerce that focuses on economic opportunities for LGBTQ Americans, released a joint statement with social-purpose consultancy Out Leadership founder and CEO Todd Sears calling the ruling “an incredible victory.”

“This decision brings national attention to many of the inequities that have kept law-abiding LGBT citizens from achieving all they can,” according to the statement. “Just as we saw a patchwork of marriage laws ultimately evolve into a unified protection of the freedom to marry, we will always advocate for a coast-to-policy of inclusive workplaces and business environments where all LGBT Americans are able to achieve their full potential.”

The NGLCC represents nearly 400 corporate and government partners (including most of the biggest global brands), and according to its data, 1.4 million LGBT business owners contribute $17 trillion each year to the U.S. economy. Out Leadership is comprised of over 80 global member firms.

The SCOTUS news came one day after a massive rally in Brooklyn drew a reported 15,000 people to demand equality and justice for Black transgender Americans after two Black trans women were found murdered last week and a Black trans man, Tony McDade, was shot to death by police.

Scott Mathews, senior business strategist at IPG agency Huge and co-lead of its LGBTQ affinity group, connected the ruling to current events, noting that the fight for racial justice led to the Civil Rights Act itself—and to this moment’s “further realization of that vision.”

“As we confront unabating daily violence against Black people in America, it is a reminder that rights are hard fought and hard won when all groups come together,” Mathews said. “So, as we celebrate this, we need to recommit to more than a moment, but to a perpetual movement for those rights to become real, every day, for every American.”


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@MaryEmilyOHara maryemily.ohara@adweek.com Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.
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