Last year, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized something that has been apparent to many of us for years:
Firing someone merely for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a form of unlawful sex discrimination, because doing so unavoidably relies on sex-based notions about how people should love, act, and appear — notions that have nothing to do with how well the person does their job.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision written by Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, recognized that existing federal law should have protected each of the employees who had been fired — Aimee Stephens, Gerald Bostock and Don Zarda — against sex discrimination that was driven by anti-LGBT prejudice.
There’s nothing new or remarkable about this workplace protection in a country that has engraved “equal justice under law” on the Supreme Court building itself. Our nation’s civil rights laws protect all of us from types of irrational discrimination that have caused significant harm over the generations. As with other types of sex discrimination, discrimination against LGBT people unjustly deprives them of full and equal opportunities to excel at school, at work and, in life.
But many people remain unfamiliar with LGBT people and unaware that anti-LGBT discrimination remains widespread.
[READ ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: Herrod: Biden Administration tells women, girls they don’t matter; we must act to prove that they do]
In Arizona, LGBT people make up 4.5% of the population and 25% of them are raising children. Because of persistent stigma and discrimination, LGBT people in our state experience elevated rates of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity. LGBT adults in Arizona are nearly twice as likely to report that they did not have enough money for food as non-LGBT adults (35% vs. 18%).
Employment discrimination continues to be rampant. Over 45% of LGBT workers reported experiencing unfair treatment at work, including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One in five (20.8%) LGBT employees suffered physical harassment, including being “punched,” “hit,” and “beaten up” in the workplace.
This overt hostility makes people vulnerable and causes them to remain closeted. Half of LGBT employees are not out to their supervisor, and one quarter are not out to any co-workers (UCLA Williams Institute Reports, 2015, 2018, and 2021).
This climate of intimidation pervades our schools as well. In 2015, 71% of middle- and high-school students in Arizona were verbally harassed at school based on their sexual orientation, and 27% of those students were physically harassed (2015 GLSEN National School Climate Survey). 54% of Arizona’s transgender students had experienced verbal harassment, and 24% had been physically assaulted (2015 U.S. Transgender Survey).
These harms are often long lasting, and legal protections can only begin to curb the abuse and let the wounds start to heal.
But as legal protections and inclusion increase, disapproving voices often do, too.
As we have seen throughout history, some opportunists create stories about these “others” and why we should fear them. Their rhetoric can spiral in the face of change, from calling the “others” first ridiculous and then dangerous. Casting an unfamiliar group as a threat justifies excluding them, negating their needs, and sometimes treating them as less than fully human.
The flood of recent anti-LGBT bills proposed in legislatures across the country shows that we are still in the fear-based portion of the change process. In the area of sports, for example, we see another cycle of familiar, tired narratives: racial integration will ruin sports; women’s sports will render women infertile; women’s sports will ruin men’s sports; transgender women will ruin women’s sports; and on it goes.
Arizonans have a proud tradition of respecting individual liberty and autonomy — an ideal that requires hearing directly from the people affected.
In 2021, there is no reason to credit conjured narratives and fear mongering when we have unprecedented access to real stories.
If you don’t know any parents of transgender children, listen to Brandon Boulware’s testimony about his daughter in front of the Missouri legislature. Listen to him describe the heartbreaking moment that he realized, after years of trying to force her to act like a boy, that she had begun to equate “being good” with “being someone else.”
Hear the fear in his voice when he imagines losing her, after she had finally become a confident child once again, due to political campaigning against the lifesaving measures he’d found for his child.
In his words, I hear echoes of the same pain described by so many Arizona parents. They fear for the physical safety of their children any time they’re late coming home from school, knowing these campaigns make their children targets for violence.
We can do better. Legal protections, now confirmed by our nation’s highest court, are an essential step forward. We also must listen to the voices of LGBT Arizonans and make our state a safe place to work, learn, and live.
Editor's note: Kell Olson is a staff attorney at Lambda Legal and lives in Tucson.