LGBTQ Agenda: Queer trio honored by US government for fighting for equal workplace rights

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday October 3, 2023
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Gerald Bostock, left, will be inducted into the U.S. Labor Department's Hall of Honor along with Donald Zarda and Aimee Stephens, who will be recognized posthumously. Photos: Bostock, courtesy of Bostock; Zarda, courtesy his estate; Stephens, Charles William Kelly/ACLU
Gerald Bostock, left, will be inducted into the U.S. Labor Department's Hall of Honor along with Donald Zarda and Aimee Stephens, who will be recognized posthumously. Photos: Bostock, courtesy of Bostock; Zarda, courtesy his estate; Stephens, Charles William Kelly/ACLU

The United States Department of Labor has announced a date that it will honor three LGBTQ people who fought for equal rights in the workplace and won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling three years ago.

Gerald Bostock, Aimee Stephens, and Donald Zarda were the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County, where the justices in 2020 ruled 6-3 that LGBTQ people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on account of sex. Stephens and Zarda will be honored posthumously.

The labor department will be honoring the trio by adding them to the Labor Hall of Honor Wednesday, October 18, at 1 p.m. (Eastern Time) at the department's Frances Perkins Building at 200 Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., according to Monica C. Vereen, a spokesperson for the department.

Michael Trupo, who also works in the department's public affairs office, stated he would try to get a statement from Julie A. Su, who has been the acting secretary of labor since the departure of Marty Walsh in March. Walsh, a former mayor of Boston, is now the executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association. For a statement from the department, Trupo referred the Bay Area Reporter to the language of its online invite.

"Prior to the Bostock decision, anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ workers consisted of a patchwork of laws and regulations that varied from state to state, and over half of states offered no protections whatsoever. At the federal level, efforts to pass legislation had fallen short, and courts were divided over whether existing law protected workers from being fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity," the invitation reads.

"By winning their employment discrimination cases before the Supreme Court after years of litigation, these three plaintiffs expanded workplace protections for millions of LGBTQ+ workers across the country. This event honors their bravery and perseverance," the invite continues.

Bostock was fired in 2013 from his job as a social worker in Clayton County, Georgia, shortly after he joined a gay softball league. He had to balance the suit with a prostate cancer diagnosis, which he had to fight without health insurance due to his job loss.

Bostock is the only one of the three who's still alive. He could not be located for comment; his attorney from the case did not return a request for comment for this report as of press time.

Stephens, a transgender woman, died in May 2020, just weeks before the court ruled on the case. She had been fired by Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit, Michigan the same year as Bostock, after she informed her employer she'd be taking time off for gender affirmation surgery.

She was offered a severance package in exchange for not saying anything; but rather, Stephens opted to sue.

Zarda, a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express on Long Island, New York, was fired after he revealed to a woman strapped to him that he was gay. (He was trying to alleviate her concern about being strapped to a male instructor.)

Fired for misconduct, Zarda sued, and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled in favor of Altitude Express. Following his 2014 death in a parachuting accident, Zarda's estate appealed.

In his majority opinion in the Bostock case, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, "An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It makes no difference if other factors besides the plaintiff's sex contributed to the decision or that the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group."

Therefore, "discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second," Gorsuch stated. A male employee can't be fired for the status of being romantically or otherwise attracted to men, because that would entail treating men separately from women, which is sex discrimination, for example.

The labor department announced that Bostock, Stephens, and Zarda would be honored at the same time it announced the El Monte Thai garment workers would be recognized. The 72 garment workers, discovered by federal agents in 1995, had been trafficked and after a national outcry were granted a path to American citizenship. They were inducted September 18.

"The El Monte Thai garment workers serve as a lasting reminder of the importance of the Department of Labor's mission to protect rights of all workers," Su stated. "The importance of their contributions to labor and changes in federal labor and immigration laws cannot be understated. We are proud to recognize and welcome them to the department's hall of honor."

The hall of honor was established in 1988. Perkins, the building's namesake, was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. As labor secretary under presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, she helped implement New Deal legislation.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

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