On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, in the majority opinion, stated: "An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."
With this decision, millions of LGBTQ+ workers nationwide gained invaluable workplace protections – and it was made possible by three courageous plaintiffs: Gerald Bostock, Donald Zarda and Aimee Stephens.
Gerald Bostock was a child welfare advocate for Clayton County, Georgia. He enjoyed the work and received positive feedback for his performance. Under his leadership, the county won national awards for its work. In 2013, after a decade of exemplary work, the county fired him for "conduct unbecoming of a county employee." The conduct in question? Bostock had joined a gay recreational softball league.
Losing the job he loved was bad enough, but it also left him without health insurance as he recovered from prostate cancer. Bostock sued the county, arguing that his firing violated Title VII.
In an interview with the Washington Blade following the decision, Bostock expressed an interest in continuing to pursue equality for LGBTQ+ people, saying, "“[There’s] a lot of work ahead, that’s work that I’m willing to continue doing… I want to lend my voice to these efforts so that we’re all treated equality.”
A passionate skydiver, Zarda was fired days after mentioning his sexuality at Altitude Express, the New York company where he was employed as a tandem skydiver and skydiving instructor. Zarda sued his former employer, and after he died in 2014, his sister, Melissa Zarda, and partner, Bill Moore, continued litigating on his behalf, all the way to the Supreme Court.
Melissa Zarda wrote of her brother, “I hope that when people hear Don’s story they are moved to speak up, urging the court not to roll back the rights of so many people who are just trying to do their jobs. If we are to ever achieve real equality and justice, we must continue to fight for the civil rights on behalf of Don and on behalf of LGBTQ people everywhere.”
Stephens, who worked as a funeral director in Michigan, was fired shortly after coming out as transgender at work. Assigned male at birth, Stephens lived as a man into her forties, despite thinking of herself as a woman. In 2013, four years after coming out to her wife as transgender, Stephenes wrote a letter to her employer and coworkers, informing them of her decision to undergo gender affirmation surgery and begin presenting as female at work.
"What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster," she wrote. "I have a gender identity disorder that I have struggled with my entire life... With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is... As distressing as this is sure to be to my friends and some of my family, I need to do this for myself and for my own peace of mind and to end the agony in my soul... It is my wish that I can continue to work at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home doing what I have always done, which is my best!"
Her employer fired her, offering a severance package contingent on her agreeing to stay quiet about her termination. Instead, Stephens reached out to the Michigan ACLU, and eventually filed suit against her former employer. She died a few weeks before the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision ensuring that other transgender workers would have the protections she was denied.
Before the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ workers consisted of a patchwork of laws and regulations that varied from state to state, and over half of states offered no protections whatsoever.
Bostock, Zarda and Stephens wanted simply to live their lives honestly and openly, without fear of reprisal, and to ensure that others could do the same. In honor of their courage, their persistence, and the widespread protections their efforts ushered in for LGBTQ+ workers around the country, we are proud to be inducting all three plaintiffs into the U.S. Department of Labor's Hall of Honor.
Isidro Mariscal is an attorney and Anthony Golden an equal opportunity specialist at the U.S. Department of Labor. Mariscal is the former president of Pride@DOL and Golden is the current Secretary/Treasurer.