Just when it seemed the year 2020 had fully embraced an “All Bad News, All The Time” format, the U.S. Supreme Court let some light break through our dark days.
In a landmark 6-3 decision, the court ruled that employers can’t fire lesbian, gay or transgender people simply for being who they are. The ruling says Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex, applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote the opinion: “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Those 15 words mean a lot and will buoy anyone doubting the moral universe’s justice-bound bend. Frankly, a step toward greater equality couldn’t have come at a better time.
At its midpoint, this has been a dim year. A pandemic taking more than 110,000 American lives, months spent largely quarantined, massive job losses, a swift and forceful public outcry over police brutality against black Americans, tear gas and rioting, a president incapable of leading but always ready to spit gasoline on fires.
The nation has been convulsing. And with the coronavirus still very much alive, protests ongoing and an administration that exists in an unceasing tornado of lies and provocations, calm is nowhere in sight.
So let’s take Monday’s court ruling as a win for fairness, and a moment of sanity in a year that has felt unhinged.
The fact that companies in most states could still fire people for being gay, lesbian or transgender always took many by surprise. It was one of those issues society had moved forward on faster than the law.
So it had to be spelled out, as Gorsuch wrote: “Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. 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.”
At the heart of this is fairness, same as the issue of race and policing that has led hundreds of thousands to protest the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Why do we see example after example of black people being treated violently by the police?
In the LGBT discrimination opinion, Gorsuch laid out two hypothetical examples:
1) “Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.”
2) “Or take an employer who fires a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth. Again, the individual employee’s sex plays an unmistakable and impermissible role in the discharge decision.”
Both those examples highlight profoundly and transparently unfair situations. And a vast majority of Americans know they’re unfair.
Some still look to demonize LGBT people, claiming their sexual orientation is a “choice” or their gender identify is somehow wrong. Anyone who holds those views would dispute my earlier description of LGBT workers as people “being who they are.”
No matter. That argument, overrun by progress long ago, has been rendered wholly insignificant. LGBT workers are now protected against discrimination. It’s the law of the land, and that law has been established with the help of two conservative Supreme Court justices, Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by Republicans, in part, to keep things like this from happening.
Fairness and common sense, at least in this case, prevailed.
And that shock of light in 2020’s darkness should give us more than momentary hope. Fairness and common sense are central to protests against police brutality. Fairness and common sense are central to issues like immigration, health care, tax cuts and even the handling of a pandemic.
A president only capable of looking inward is incapable of fairness or common sense. So the hope is that those two things find a way to prevail, in spite of the president and in spite of the powerful people who want things kept only their way.
Monday was a victory for the LGBT community and a victory for basic human decency.
America’s convulsing will continue. But this good news gives us hope of more light to come.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.