The legal discrimination still keeping LGBTQ people out of work

Marin Wolf, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

June's landmark Supreme Court decision bars bias against most LGBTQ people at work, but it doesn't end all legal discrimination that keeps them out of work.

For Kelly Jenkins, the most disheartening encounter she had after coming out as transgender happened not at her workplace, but at a clothing store. Jenkins, who was working as a teacher in East Tennessee in the 1990s, was shopping in the women's section of a store when an employee told her to leave and called the police to escort her out.

"I didn't know how to go get professional clothes anymore without fear of being outed, without fear of retribution," she said. After being refused service at a restaurant, Jenkins said she also avoided networking and going out with co-workers. She eventually left education for four years but now is teaching in Massachusetts, which has statewide protections.

Tennessee is one of 26 states that offer no explicit state-wide protections for LGBTQ people in public places like buses, libraries, restaurants, stores and doctor's offices, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Discrimination in these spaces creates hurdles for LGBTQ people -- making them less safe, less healthy and less able to find work, said Avatara Smith-Carrington, the Tyron Garner Memorial law fellow at Lambda Legal, a civil rights group.

"You enter into a library with the hopes of using those resources to possibly look for a job," Smith-Carrington said, "and you are harassed or discriminated against or denied access to that space -- all of a sudden your ability to secure or apply for a job is cut down."

Bias in public accommodations fuels the high rates of poverty and unemployment, according to Smith-Carrington. The Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles reported in January 2019 that 9% of LGBTQ people were unemployed, compared with just 5% of the rest of the population. One in four LGBTQ people had a yearly income below $24,000.


There is no federal law prohibiting discrimination in public spaces on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Many cities have nondiscrimination ordinances, but some states, like North Carolina, have passed laws to prevent local governments from extending such protections.

That means even emergency shelters, considered public accommodations in some cases, are not always a haven. Federally funded sites are prohibited from discriminating, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently proposed a new rule to allow them to discriminate against transgender people.

Debra Hopkins, a Black transgender woman in Charlotte, North Carolina, faced discrimination while experiencing homelessness between 2011 and 2013. She said that at one women's shelter, the director told her she must submit to a strip search in order to stay – something that was not asked of any of the other residents.

"I was never able to obtain employment again within corporate America."


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