Am I protected from workplace discrimination for being gay?

Picture this: You work as a skydiving instructor. You love your job, and you’re a good employee. You arrive on time each day, and you dedicate yourself completely to your work. One day, you’re preparing for a tandem skydive with a female student, and she seems uneasy about being strapped so closely to you—a male. You reassure her by letting her know that you’re gay. A few days later, you get fired.

While the above may seem like a clear case of employment discrimination, there is debate over whether sexual orientation is a category that’s legally protected under federal law surrounding workplace discrimination. This question has been batted around different courtrooms since 2010. Here’s why the answer hasn’t been so cut and dried:

Interpretation of the law

The Civil Rights Act—enacted in 1964—was a landmark piece of legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against workers based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” One question that was not considered at the time, however, was the full scope of what was meant by “sex.” Is sexual orientation protected under this category, or does the term only refer to gender identity?

In 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) opined that sexual orientation is protected under the Civil Rights Act. In 2017, the Department of Justice made an opposite ruling on the matter.

The verdict

The above case of the skydiving instructor has gone through numerous rounds of appeals—ultimately reaching a federal appeals court in New York. Last week, that court ruled 10–3 in favor of the plaintiff. The court found that sexual orientation is one intrinsic aspect of sex, and it is therefore protected under the Civil Rights Act.

The court’s ruling marks a positive step for LGBTQ rights in the workplace. It gives legal backing to individuals across the country experiencing workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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