The recent Supreme Court ruling in Bostock V. Clayton County, GA affording job protection to LGBT+ people was a landmark decision that represented the culmination of a decades-long struggle. The fact that it was handed down this month in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement is appropriate considering its origins in the 1950s during the social turmoil of the civil rights movement.
In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Title VII of which was the crux of the Bostock case. The focus then was on discrimination against blacks and women. Historians agree the impetus behind the 1964 legislation was the famous March on Washington in 1963, remembered now mostly for Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. What many people forget is that the 1963 march was organized by a black gay man—Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was an early advocate for LGBT+ rights, which he saw as inextricably linked to the larger movement for equality for African Americans and women. He was right. Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The long struggle for protection from discrimination in the workplace began in 1957 when Frank Kameny, an astronomer who worked for the federal government, was fired for being gay. Kameny fought his firing in the courts but at that time, the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Since then there have been many battlefronts in the war for workplace protections, not the least of which was Louisiana.
In 1992, Courtney Sharp was fired for being trans. She sued her employer and although her case was unsuccessful, it did motivate Sharp to become a trans activist. Sharp, along with her friend and fellow activist Stewart Butler, spearheaded the movement to persuade PFLAG to include trans people in its mission statement. In 1998, PFLAG became the first national LGBT+ organization to do that.
In 2000, when a Louisiana Winn-Dixie grocery store fired Peter Oiler for cross-dressing when he wasn’t working, he reached out to the LGBT Community Center for help and was referred to Sharp. Sharp met with Oiler and his wife Shirley, and helped organize a protest campaign consisting of 38 different organizations.
When the debate over trans inclusion in ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), erupted in 2007, Sharp and Butler had a feeling of déjà vu for they had fought the same battle here in New Orleans in the 1990s. Butler had waged a campaign against the HRC and other local groups years earlier over the same issue, insisting that a piecemeal approach to gaining equality was fundamentally misguided and failed to recognize “the inescapable network of mutuality” of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke.
ENDA was first introduced in 1994, but earlier attempts at similar legislation date back to 1974 when Bella Abzug introduced the Equality Act. Best known for her feminist and women’s liberation advocacy, Abzug realized that all marginalized groups were linked.
During the week of nightly protests and marches in New Orleans in the wake of the George Floyd murder, the only one that came down my street was a group of people with “Black Trans Lives Matter” signs. Trans people of color are often neglected in King’s “network of mutuality.” This fact was clearly evidenced in the debate that has recently erupted over the implosion of Pride New Orleans.
One of the criticisms of Pride New Orleans in recent years has been its lack of awareness and inclusion of the trans community. Thankfully, a dialogue has begun. Any meaningful conversation that leads to reconciliation will have to be predicated on the understanding that all our fates are links in that “network of mutuality.”
Thankfully, the Supreme Court realized that in Bostock V. Clayton County.