The EEOC Stands Up for Transgendered Workers While Congress Stalls

The EEOC's decision to extend protections against discrimination to transgender workers is an important step toward social justice and a stronger economy.

Two months ago, I wrote that our country should pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and expedite the process of ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. This month, we’re one step closer. A groundbreaking ruling handed down from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on April 20 dictates that protections against gender identity discrimination are covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and can be called upon in gender and sex discrimination complaints to the bureau and in subsequent lawsuits. This is a major leap forward for transgender Americans and for their job security.

The landmark change came as a response to the case of Mia Macy, a transgender woman and former Phoenix police officer who applied for and was tentatively accepted for a ballistics job -- until the employer conducted a background check. After obtaining information about Macy’s transition from a man to a woman, the employer allegedly (and untruthfully) informed Macy the offer was eliminated due to budget cuts and then promptly filled the position with another (not transgender) applicant. EEOC policy has been vague on exactly the types of cases are covered under its statutes, and are therefore under its legal jurisdiction, and detrimentally so. But under the new ruling, Macy’s filing of a complaint of gender discrimination with the EEOC can move forward to the next investigative steps.

The new ruling, however, has ramifications much larger than Macy’s case alone. It clarifies existing national policy and makes stronger what’s often been a too slowly evolving area of employment law. It sets into motion protections for potential employees from workplace discrimination regardless of their gender identification, expression, or status. The policy holds obvious significance for cutting away unnecessary pressures within the workplace environment, pressures that are both bad social policy and bad business policy.

Human Rights Watch’s “Corporate Equality Index” has striking evidence in support of the last point. Not only are employees who usually face discrimination finding more inclusive employment laws beneficial, so are employers. While employees experience higher confidence in their job searches and eventual careers, employers can access improved applicant pools. Benefits like more inclusive health plans and policies, gender-minority support and focus groups, and diversity councils are all additional assets that strengthen the commitment to productive and respectful employer-employee relations, guided by principles of fairness and equity. The economic outlook, in the long run, is the real winner.

The EEOC ruling will also have profound effects in curbing some disturbing trends. Data from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) shows that mistreatment at work is widespread. A disturbingly high 90 percent of transgender individuals reported feeling harassed or mistreated at work, and 47 percent reported being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion or salary increase as a result of their non-conforming gender status.

On top of this, the lack of protection against discrimination in the workplace has long had alarmingly adverse effects on gender-minority individuals elsewhere. The NCTE further reports that as transgender employees face workplace discrimination, their personal lives suffer as well. As a result of negative workplace environments, transgender individuals are four times more likely to be homeless, 70 percent more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, and 85 percent more likely to be incarcerated.

The EEOC ruling is a vital first step with the potential to be a game changer in the job market. Its potential for setting a precedent for the passage of laws like the ENDA, one of the most stagnant pieces of legislation of the past two decades, is also promising. But it’s not the whole solution. While it's certainly a strong deterrent for employers with histories or ongoing incidents of gender discrimination, it’s only a mechanism as strong as we make it. It shouldn’t only be a reactive method that penalizes discrimination by threatening lawsuits, legal fees, and unwanted government intervention. Rather, it should foster a culture of prevention aimed at normalizing acceptance of all workers.

Tyler S. Bugg is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and an Organizing Fellow with Obama for America studying international affairs and human geography at the University of Georgia.