Litigating Transgender Employment Rights in the United States
- Susan Gluck MezeySusan Gluck MezeyDepartment of Political Science, Loyola University of Chicago
Discrimination against transgender or gender nonconforming individuals in the workplace affects hiring, firing, promotions, salaries, and benefits. Most states have no laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on gender identity, and, in the absence of federal law, transgender workers have turned to the courts to seek equal rights on the job. Transgender plaintiffs often file suit under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. The defendants argue that since the statute does not explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity, Congress did not intend to include transgender or gender nonconforming individuals as members of a class protected by Title VII. The cases revolve around the question of whether the ban on sex discrimination in the law should be narrowly construed to apply to men and women as determined by their biological status or whether it should be broadly construed to prohibit discrimination against individuals because of their gender identity or gender expression.
Prior to 1989, suits brought by transgender plaintiffs were dismissed by judges who agreed with employers that Congress did not intend Title VII to guarantee their employment rights. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), the Supreme Court held that the statute forbids an employer from making a negative employment decision because an employee’s behavior does not conform to stereotypical norms of behavior.
Hopkins set the stage for the next several decades of litigation over the employment rights of transgender employees, and, although the courts were initially reluctant to allow transgender plaintiffs to benefit from Title VII, within a few years, most broadened their interpretation of the law. Over time, the courts adopted two theories: first, the gender nonconformity approach in which discrimination based on sex stereotyping violates Title VII; second, the per se approach in which discrimination on the basis of gender identity is equated with discrimination under Title VII.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) adopted both theories of Title VII in Macy v. Holder (2012). In 2014, the Justice Department formally committed itself to interpreting Title VII to apply to gender identity. In October 2017, the department shifted its position on Title VII, negating the per se theory of gender identity and emphasizing that the statute only applies to employer actions based on biological differences between men and women.
In addition to Title VII claims, transgender plaintiffs have filed job discrimination actions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law prohibiting discrimination against individuals because of their disabilities. Although the statute explicitly excludes gender identity disorder, two federal district courts have interpreted it to cover transgender persons with disabilities, with a third disagreeing. Tying claims to the ADA has benefits as well as drawbacks.