The Federal Government Just Took a Historic Step for Transgender Rights


The news: Back in July, President Obama announced an executive order designed to protect transgender federal contractors from discrimination. Now, the administration is setting a higher standard for employers throughout the country — and holding them accountable for discriminatory hiring practices against transgender people.

On Thursday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed lawsuits against an eye clinic in Florida and a funeral home in Michigan, which both allegedly fired employees who were going through gender transition.

By arguing that transgender workers are protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which "prohibits employers from firing employees because they do not behave according to the employer's stereotypes of how men and women should act" — the EEOC's lawsuit has huge implications for hiring practices throughout the country.

"An employee should not be denied employment opportunities because he or she does not conform to the preferred or expected gender norms or roles of the employer or co-workers," Malcolm S. Medley, director of the EEOC's Miami district office, said in a statement.

This is a welcome step toward protecting transgender people. Thursday's lawsuits are very much in line with 2012's Macy v. Holder, which found the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives guilty of discriminating against a transgender job applicant. But while the Macy decision applied to workers in the federal sector, the results of these new lawsuits can have a broader application in the private sector.

"The lawsuits filed today by the EEOC are historic and a giant step toward ensuring American workers are judged based on the work they do, and not their gender identity," Sarah Warbelow, the Human Rights Campaign's legal director, said in a statement. "Transgender people continue to face some of the highest levels of discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC has the ability to alleviate these problems now and deserves immense praise for tackling the issue head-on."

Obama is charting a historical course for equality. While describing Obama as the "first gay president" might be going a step too far, it's undeniable that the president's tenure has been marked by significant steps toward equality: ending "don't ask, don't tell" in the military, signing a tough new LGBT hate crimes bill into law, protecting LGBT federal contractors from discrimination and extending marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

While much more needs to be done to protect the rights of transgender people, these new lawsuits are steps in the right direction — and overdue attempts to fix a long-overlooked problem.