‘Long time coming’: Supreme Court ruling strengthens protections for LGBTQ+ workers



The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act now extends to sexual orientation and gender identity.

By Ashton Crawley, Senior Staff Writer

When Deborah Brake was a law student in the ’80s, she remembers how she and her peers were looked down upon for writing about workplace protections for LGBTQ+ employees.

“To see the changes in the past decades, it was a long time coming,” Brake, the associate dean for research and faculty development in Pitt’s School of Law, said. “It was perilous to be out at work because there were no legal remedies.”

Back then, Brake said, she could never have imagined discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ workers finding their way into federal law. But in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which protects workers from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin — now extends to sexual orientation and gender identity.

This ruling will have a monumental impact, Brake said, protecting millions of American workers within the LGBTQ+ community.

“Marriage at the time was sort of high in the sky,” Brake said, “People thought it was absurd that there could ever be recognition for same-sex marriage. Every part of the issue was on how terrible the law was on these issues. I actually cried when I read the post-doc opinion.”

While local laws have protected City LGBTQ+ workers from discrimination since 2019, community members did not receive protections at the state level until the Court’s ruling last Monday. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, there are more than 400,000 LGBTQ+ adults living in Pennsylvania.

Brake, who teaches Employment Discrimination, Constitutional Law and Gender and the Law, said it is a much bigger deal when something violates Title VII rather than a local ordinance like Pittsburgh’s.

“In that way, I think it has a very big impact on our area, which already has these local ordinances in place,” Brake said. “Employers really have to pay attention and take notice.”

Amy Wildermuth, the dean of Pitt’s School of Law, said the ruling helps tie together all of the local ordinances to protect LGBTQ+ workers that have popped up across the country in recent years.

“Although we had many states and cities offering those protections, we now have a uniform, rather than a patchwork, of protections,” Wildermuth, one of the only openly gay members of Pitt Law’s faculty, said. “Obviously, it is a very big win for those of us who are LGBTQ.”

Brake said there are no federal statutes that expressly say sexual orientation or transgender discrimination are against the law. Up until this point, county- and state-level courts have argued differing interpretations of what counts as sex discrimination. In most cases, Brake said, sexual orientation and gender identity have not been protected against discrimination in courts that do not make this distinction.

“It is a stunningly important decision,” Brake said. “Unless Title VII covers this, no federal statute would. It’s been a big issue for decades now whether or not the scope of Title VII sex discrimination includes sexual orientation and transgender bias.”

While discrimination against gender identity and sexual orientation are now federally prohibited, Wildermuth said, the ruling extends even further than law — it creates a precedent of respect.

“There’s a different kind of signal that sends,” Wildermuth said. “I certainly think that when you see decisions of this sort, there’s respect that is accorded to people beyond the legal protection, a certain legal status and a certain dignity.”

According to Julie Beaulieu, a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department, the ruling is an important shift, but there is still much work left to do.

“We need to center social justice, especially for Black and brown trans people, since history tells us that rights are not enough,” Beaulieu said. “I hope people educate themselves by reading about the case and learning about the history that brought us here.”

Beaulieu said looking at how long it took for LGBTQ+ workers to get federal protections says a lot about how LGBTQ+ people are valued, or undervalued, in the United States.

“The betrayal felt by some conservative activists, especially among those that backed Neil Gorsuch, tells us a lot about how much money and effort is put into anti-LGBTQ politics and what these activists expect for their efforts,” Beaulieu said.

Brake said the fact that the majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first nominee to the Court, was very significant, because he typically rules very conservatively.

“In the end it shows that it doesn’t require any odd configuration of reading the statute to get to this result,” Brake said. “To have it come from a conservative justice who could see the clear path with this law that has been on the books since 1964 — there’s a moment of clarity and beauty in all that.”