On Monday morning, the scales of justice tipped one step closer toward equality for LGBT Americans when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the same federal Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on sex also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a 6-3 vote, conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, and fellow conservative and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the more liberal members of the court in finding that language forbidding workplace discrimination based on sex contained within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended to these other situations.
The ruling represents a huge victory for the LGBT community and its advocates in a case with special meaning for Texas, one of 27 states that has had no statewide protections in place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The court’s ruling comes in the midst of Pride Month, and five years after the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage in America. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that 11.3 million Americans, including 1.2 million Texans, identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Brian Riedel, an openly gay Rice University professor who studies LGBT social movements within the school’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, was deeply moved upon hearing the news from the nation’s highest court.
“I wept for joy,” Riedel said.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg took to Twitter to express her excitement. In a message accompanying a photo of Ogg with her life partner, fellow attorney Olivia Jordan, and their son, Ogg wrote that their family “celebrates the decision by our nation’s highest court and true equality under the law.”
LGBT Houstonians have plenty of reason to celebrate what this ruling entails, especially given the stinging defeat of the proposed HERO anti-discrimination ordinance in the 2015 city election, which came after a fear-mongering opposition campaign that attempted to shock local voters with fantastical, offensive talking points that likened law-abiding transgender residents to sexual predators for their wish to use the public restroom that corresponds with their innate gender identity.
The majority decision, authored by Gorsuch, explains how the issue of an individual’s biological sex is relevant to any decision made based on that person’s transgender identity or sexual orientation: “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender,” Gorsuch wrote, “fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.”
Gorsuch was joined in the majority by Roberts and justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, while justices Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
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Monday’s ruling was based on three bundled cases. Donald Zarda said he was fired after identifying himself as gay. Similarly, Gerald Bostock of Clayton County, Ga., was fired from his job after joining a gay softball league. Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman in Michigan was fired from her job as a funeral director after informing her boss and coworkers that she planned to “become the person that my mind already is” by dressing as a woman in public when she’d previously presented as male to her colleagues.
Rice’s Brian Riedel said he wants to be optimistic that the Supreme Court’s action will result in more equitable treatment of LGBT Texans and Houstonians by their employers, but he acknowledged that “we cannot say that the decision today will immediately translate into equal protection for all.”
“What we have here is not a universal order that will be obeyed by all employers, saying ‘Thou shall not do this.’ What we have is a tool for people to defend themselves with when it happens,” he said.
“It gives me hope that progress that creates equality and the conditions of possibility for all to succeed can happen," Riedel continued, “but it is never a one time thing. It requires tending. It requires defending. And it requires education.”