Legally, Monday’s Supreme Court ruling forbidding employment discrimination against LGBTQ people does not change much in Washington. The state has a law that goes much further than the court opinion, banning discrimination not only in regard to work, but housing and public accommodation, including schools and restrooms.
But LGBTQ advocates still rejoiced, saying the ruling will reinforce local protections and send a strong message at a time that the community continues to face violence, harassment on the job and off, and setbacks from a presidential administration they view as hostile.
“It’s just a very powerful day,” said Denise Diskin, a lawyer and executive director of QLaw Foundation of Washington.
Applying for a job can be a scary prospect when you’re LGBTQ. Elayne Wylie, co-executive director of the Gender Justice League, recalled filling out paperwork for a job she had just been offered a dozen years ago when she got to a question asking for any previous names. Transgender, she had recently transitioned and if she put down her birth name, it would be apparent.
She did anyway but said she “had a stone-cold moment.” The woman across the desk from her wasn’t fazed. “Welcome aboard,” the woman said.
The state ban on discriminating on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation had been in effect for a couple of years.
Yet, even for Washingtonians, Monday’s ruling carries some legal clout. It affirms the ability to bring job-related LBGTQ discrimination cases in federal as well as state court, according to Laura Lindstrand, a policy analyst for Washington’s Human Rights Commission.
There was also a gray area, in the minds of some, as to whether state anti-discrimination law applied to federal employees working in Washington, according to Anya Morgan, an attorney with the Lavender Rights Project. The ruling makes clear that discrimination against them, too, is off limits, Morgan said.
The bigger impact of the court decision, advocates said, likely lies in its impact on societal attitudes. Despite Washington’s law, job discrimination is common, according to Morgan and others. LGBT people whose résumés attract interest are sometimes rejected when they show up for interviews. Those who do get hired may find themselves judged more harshly or dismissed on a pretext. And bosses and coworkers may refuse to call transgender employees by the pronouns they use.
Black transgender people face particularly acute challenges, said Jaelynn Scott, the Lavender Rights Project’s interim executive director. She said she faced discrimination recently while working for another employer, in a case she can’t talk about because of a nondisclosure agreement.
Even as the Black Lives Matter movement takes center stage locally and nationally, Scott added, people are not generally talking about people killed in bias crimes, many of them Black transgender women.
What’s more, it hasn’t been that long since tensions simmered in Washington over the use of bathrooms by transgender people. In 2015, the Human Rights Commission established rules clarifying the right of people to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. A backlash ensued, resulting in failed legislative bills and initiative attempts.
One of the groups pushing such initiatives was the Family Policy Institute of Washington. Mark Miloscia, a former Republican legislator who is now the group’s executive director, called Monday’s court decision “breathtaking.” He said he expected it to further a movement that in his view challenges religious practices and breaks down distinctions between men and women.
The opinion will not affect cases that relate to religious organizations, like a lawsuit brought by a bisexual man whose job application was rejected by Union Gospel Mission. There is a religious exemption in federal anti-discrimination law, just as there is in state law.
Miloscia said, however: “I expect the religious exemptions to be thrown out, too.”
Monday’s ruling may well have broad implications, said Diskin. While technically only about employment, it gets at a central question, she said: “What does discrimination mean?” And so, she said, it could give grounds to challenge a Trump administration rule, finalized Friday, to allow doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to discriminate against transgender people.
The Washington Legislature and Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler also counteracted the Trump administration’s action with a new law and emergency rule-making that bars discrimination by health insurers.
Aidan Key, president of Gender Diversity, an organization that supports transgender youth, said he sees the 6-3 court decision as an indication of “changing hearts and minds across the nation.”
He has sensed this already while traveling to both red and blue states to give training to schools, educators and families. Most often, he said, he has found acceptance.
The court ruling, however, makes it official, he said. “There is nothing compared to feeling the freedom to move about the rest of the country knowing we have these protections in place.”