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Title VII protects transgender employees, EEOC declares in historical ruling

WASHINGTON – In a landmark ruling, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced late Monday that Title VII, the federal sex-discrimination law, protects employees who are discriminated against because they are transgender.

In its unprecedented 5-0 decision, the EEOC concluded that “intentional discrimination against a transgender individual because that person is transgender is, by definition, discrimination ‘based on … sex’ and such discrimination … violates Title VII.”

The federal agency interprets and enforces federal employment discrimination law, and the decision marks the first time it has offered clear guidance on this issue.

The ruling came as a result of a discrimination complaint filed by Transgender Law Center on behalf of Mia Macy, a transgender woman who was denied a job as a ballistics technician at the Walnut Creek, Calif. laboratory of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Macy, a veteran and former police detective, initially applied for the position as male and was told that she virtually was guaranteed the job. Macy was exceptionally qualified for the position, having a military and law enforcement background and being one of the few people in the country who had already been trained on ATF’s ballistics computer system.

After disclosing her gender transition midway through the hiring process, Macy was told that funding for that position had been suddenly cut. She later learned that someone else had been hired for the job.

Macy responded to the EEOC’s decision:

“As a veteran and a police officer, I’ve worked my whole career to uphold the values of fairness and equality. Although the discrimination I experienced was painful both personally and financially, and led to the loss of my family’s home to foreclosure, I’m proud to be a part of this groundbreaking decision confirming that our nation’s employment discrimination laws protect all Americans, including transgender people. I’m grateful for the help of Transgender Law Center, which believed in me from the start and helped guide me through this process. No one should be denied a job just for being who they are.”

The decision follows a clear trend by federal courts in recent years holding that transgender people are protected by Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination. But it has even broader implications than a court decision, because the EEOC is the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing federal discrimination laws throughout the nation.

The EEOC’s decision will impact every employer, public and private, throughout the nation. The decision is entitled to significant deference by the courts, and will be binding on all federal agencies.

Ilona Turner, Transgender Law Center’s legal director, explained the significance of the ruling:

“It’s incredibly significant that the Commission has finally put its stamp of approval on the common-sense understanding that discrimination against transgender people is a form of sex discrimination. That’s true whether it’s understood as discrimination because of the person’s gender identity, or because they have changed their sex, or because they don’t conform to other people’s stereotypes of how men and women ought to be.”

Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a legal organization that has been fighting for women’s rights since 1974, also celebrated the ruling:

“Today’s decision helps our discrimination laws fulfill their purpose of ensuring that no one loses a job based on sex. Women have fought for decades to be judged in the workplace by our abilities, not by our sex, gender identity, or gender stereotypes. We are thrilled that the EEOC has confirmed that Title VII protects transgender people from job discrimination, thanks to the work of Transgender Law Center.”

Masen Davis, Transgender Law Center’s executive director, also weighed in:

“With so many barriers to gainful employment in our society, we can’t let discrimination be one of them. The EEOC’s decision ensures that every transgender person in the United States will have legal recourse when faced with employment discrimination. Having the protection of federal sex-discrimination law is especially critical for transgender people who live in the 34 states that lack transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination laws. This is a game changer for transgender America.”

Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality’s executive director, said the EEOC decision was monumental in nature:

"This ruling is a major advancement in transgender rights that will provide a significant tool to fight discrimination. It will also help us advocate for still needed protections like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the federal contractors executive order. …

"This is a major victory. As many as 90% of trans people still face tremendous discrimination in employment according to our National Discrimination Survey, and it will help so much that the EEOC agrees with what more and more courts have been saying, that discriminating against trans people because of their sex, or their perceived sex, or what an employer thinks about their sex is clearly sex discrimination, illegal and wrong."

Joe Solmonese, the outgoing president of the Human Rights Campaign, applauded the ruling.

“This ruling is a major step forward in protecting the LGBT community from workplace discrimination. We know that transgender people are among the most vulnerable members of our community and suffer widespread discrimination, including in employment. We applaud the EEOC for its historic ruling, congratulate Transgender Law Center on this victory and thank Mia Macy for her courage and perseverance. …

“While the EEOC has strengthened protections for transgender workers, it is critical that the entire LGBT community have clear, strong protections against workplace discrimination in federal law. Policymakers must take every step available to them to ensure all workers have a level playing field, including passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the adoption of an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors.”

Currently, there is no federal law explicitly barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While many states have moved to protect LGBT under their own anti-discrimination laws, there are no such protections based on sexual orientation in 29 states, or based on gender identity in 34 states. While the ruling provides stronger protections for transgender workers, federal courts have broadly concluded that discrimination based on sexual orientation is not prohibited by Title VII.