Advocacy Column

Employment protections now include sexual orientation, but our role in LGBTQIA+ equality continues

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A SCOTUS ruling signals optimism for the LGBTQIA+ community; however, the Court’s recent conservative shift indicates an ongoing battle. Health care providers have a responsibility to advocate for this patient population in the midst of uncertainty.



The state of Tennessee, where I worked and attended medical school, did not have legislation in place prohibiting termination of employment based on sexual orientation alone. As a lesbian, I never felt safe at work knowing that I could be fired at any time simply because of who I loved and how I identified. When I started medical school in rural Appalachia, I decided I would be “out” but remained cautious. That meant inspecting everyone I encountered for signs of acceptance and safety before sharing details about my life. As a third-year medical student, I started wearing a rainbow triangle on my white coat. One of the first patients I cared for cried and thanked me for wearing the pin. She then proceeded to tell me about her partner, her own struggles with depression, and the secrets she had to keep from her community. It was overwhelming and, yet, so familiar. I was struck by how wearing this pin, a small gesture, made this patient feel safe enough to come out to me and seek help for her depression. Although I found a supportive community in Tennessee, it was only after I moved to Massachusetts for residency—where antidiscrimination laws protected lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, plus all other gender and sexual minority (LGBTQIA+) identified people—did I feel safe to freely share about my partner and our life together.

A landmark decision in the Supreme Court

This past June, in a 6 to 3 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Bostock v Clayton County that Title VII’s ban on discrimination also protects LGBTQIA+ employees. Title VII is a federal law that protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion.1 In this decision, the court determined that “sex” cannot be differentiated from sexual orientation. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion, stated, “It is impossible… to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”2 Title VII not only protects employees in hiring and firing practices but also protects against harassment and retaliation. Prior to this ruling, there were no federal antidiscrimination laws for LGBTQIA+ individuals, and only 22 states and the District of Columbia had laws in place that specified antidiscrimination protection for this community.3 Because of this landmark decision, Title VII now protects all employees in all states from discrimination, including due to an individual’s sexual orientation.

This is a huge victory in the battle for equality; however, the fight is not over. Justice Gorsuch stated, “We do not purport to address bathrooms, locker rooms or anything else of the kind…whether other policies and practices might or might not qualify as unlawful discrimination or find justifications under other provisions of Title VII are questions for future cases, not these.”2 This victory sets a new precedent and will continue to be further defined with more court cases as states and employers push back against these protections.

Continue to: A worrying shift in the Court...


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