The Laws That Protect You

DISCLAIMER: The information below is in the course of being updated and will likely change given the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Bostock case regarding Title VII and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as other recent developments. Please check back for updates, or contact Lambda Legal's Help Desk.

What laws protect me from anti-LGBT or anti-HIV discrimination?

A mixture of federal, state, and local laws explicitly protect LGBT people and people with HIV, federal and state bans on sex discrimination provide additional less explicit protection, and there is also a range of more general workplace-related laws that may be useful:

Federal antidiscrimination laws

In the private sector: There are federal laws in place that protect people living with HIV from discrimination in any workplace with 15 or more employees (see “How does the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protect HIV-positive workers?”).

While there is currently no federal statute that uses the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to describe prohibited discrimination in private-sector (nongovernment) jobs, transgender workers have had widespread success invoking the prohibition of sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers are increasingly able to invoke Title VII as well. In April 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, becoming the first federal appellate court to so rule. At the time of this writing, this issue was being pressed in other federal appellate courts.

Private companies that seek and receive contracts to perform work for the federal government are governed by nondiscrimination rules established by President Obama’s Executive Order 13672, which forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity against employees of federal contractors, as well as federal statutory law prohibiting discrimination against people living with HIV. Non-profit organizations that are not religiously affiliated are subject to these same rules. Religiously affiliated non-profits receiving federal contracts currently are permitted to discriminate in specified ways due to an executive order and legal analysis put in place during the Bush administration. If you believe you have been subjected to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination and your employer has a contract to perform work for the federal government, you may be entitled to file a complaint with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs within the U.S. Department of Labor.  Such a complaint can result in your employer being investigated for systematic problems, required to change practices, or even losing the contract. However, the complaint process is not designed to provide individual workers a remedy for having been mistreated. Individual complaints usually are referred to the EEOC, which will investigate complaints by LGBT people as potential sex discrimination violations and complaints about HIV bias as potential disability discrimination violations.

In the public sector: Public employees at the federal, state and local level enjoy certain federal constitutional protections against discrimination. These include the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the government (and government employers) from purposely discriminating against someone without justification. Public employees have also relied on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech in order to protect the right to come out publicly. And Lambda Legal has successfully used the First Amendment to defend the right of teachers to discuss LGBT issues in the classroom and the rights of public employees to associate with gay men and lesbians. Title VII, the federal employment nondiscrimination law, applies to public employees also.

LGBT federal employees currently enjoy more definitive protection under Title VII, because the EEOC has interpreted discrimination “because of . . . sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. The EEOC is the final adjudicator of federal employee Title VII claims, unless the employee appeals to federal court (the government cannot appeal, so the EEOC’s coverage positions are final).  Federal employees also have protections under Executive Order 11478, as was amended by President Obama’s 2014 Executive Order 13672, which made explicit protections against gender identity discrimination. These Orders permit employees to file complaints of discrimination with the agency for which the employees work but does not permit filing claims with the EEOC or in court, or offer other ways to pursue the usual remedies for workplace discrimination.

State and local laws

A number of cities, counties and states have passed laws that can help protect LGBT people and people living with HIV. Unlike the proposed federal ENDA bill, which only would address employment discrimination, many of the state, city and county laws encompass a wider range of protections, including housing and public accommodations. (Public accommodations are non-governmental entities that offer goods or services to the general public, whether independently or through facilities such as restaurants, retail stores, private schools, doctors’ offices, homeless shelters and day care centers, among others.) To find out if your state has laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, click here.

Here is some information about state nondiscrimination acts:

• While federal discrimination law applies only to employers with 15 or more employees, state laws generally cover smaller employers.

• Many of these state provisions explicitly cover perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that people discriminated against because others see them as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can make a valid legal claim under the state law, whether or not they actually are LGBT or are “out” about their true identity. Under the federal employment nondiscrimination law, Title VII, some federal courts have decided that employees are protected only against mistreatment because of their actual race, sex, religion or national origin. Other courts have recognized that the purposes of Title VII are better served by not allowing, for example, an employer’s anti-Semitic discrimination when that employer rejects an applicant mistakenly seen as being Jewish, but who actually isn’t.

• There are also state and local laws that protect political activity or expression, including coming out. Some states and localities prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their lawful actions outside of work, so this can cover LGBT employees as well.

• Some states and municipalities have prohibitions against marital status discrimination that may cover employees who are trying to obtain recognition of their same-sex relationships.

• State nondiscrimination laws historically have not helped in requiring employers to provide equal benefits to their employees, because a complicated federal statute shields covered benefit plans from attacks under state law, unless that basis appears in federal law, and “marital status” and “sexual orientation” are not listed in Title VII.  But many companies have at least realized quickly that all spouses should receive the same benefits, and those that have dragged behind have had to contend with Lambda Legal in court.  Some state and local government entities have worked to treat their own employees fairly, addressing this harm by making equal family benefits available to domestic partners and same-sex spouses of their public employees. Some also require employers that contract with state or local government agree to offer the same family benefits to employees with a domestic partner or same-sex spouse as the employer offers to workers with a different-sex spouse.

• Many states prohibit disability discrimination; some states expressly prohibit discrimination against anyone with HIV. In addition, some cities offer specific protections for workers with HIV. Often these laws provide greater protection for people living with HIV than the federal protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

• All state laws have some exceptions. For example, religiously affiliated employers sometimes are treated differently by laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBT people (although publicly funded religious organizations often agree to comply with nondiscrimination rules as a condition of receiving taxpayer money). Exemptions also frequently apply for discrimination against domestic workers and employees in various categories of nonprofit or tax-exempt organizations.

Other laws that may protect you

If you live in an area without explicit legal protections for LGBT employees, there may be other legal avenues to protect yourself or respond to unfair treatment in the workplace:

  • If your employer has a contract or collective bargaining agreement protecting you from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, or just preventing you from being fired except “for cause,” you  have legal protections under labor or contract law.
  • You may have other avenues of legal recourse because some forms of discrimination may violate state codes of professional conduct or licensing rules.
  • Certain tort and common law theories, such as infliction of emotional distress, defamation, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, wrongful termination in violation of public policy and interference with contract or prospective business advantage, may also apply.
  • An employee suffering severe harassment on the job may be able to seek compensation for emotional injuries through workers’ compensation.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact our Help Desk if you feel you have experienced discrimination.