On October 8, 2019, the story of Aimee Stephens was shared before the U.S. Supreme Court. It was one of three cases heard that day that determined whether LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination on the basis of sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Stephens had been fired six years earlier from R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Shelby, Michigan after informing her employer that she was transitioning from male to female. “What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster,” Stephens wrote in a letter to her employer. “I have felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused me great despair and loneliness.” 

Stephens never heard the ruling in her case. 

She died on May 12, 2020, a month prior to the 6-3 Supreme Court decision that federal law prohibits employment discrimination against LGBTQ workers. Stephens’ name was added shortly after among American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. 

While the decision was a monumental moment for equality, the past few weeks have shown us that passage of federal legislation has never been more important to ensure true protections for LGBTQ people at home and in the workplace. Dating back to the 1970s, the Equality Act has been introduced, suppressed and reintroduced in various forms – never making its way beyond Congress for the President’s signature. 

If passed, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federally funded programs, credit and jury service. On February 25, 2021, the House passed the act by a vote of 224 to 206, with support of three Republicans. It has since remained in the Senate Judiciary Committee. President Joe Biden called for its passage during his first State of the Union address. 

Stephens story was not new. It is not the last story of LGBTQ people fired because of who they are or who they love, either. 

Despite this case, or even the changes to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in 2007 for companies with at least 15 employees, LGBTQ workers across the country face discrimination in hirings, promotions and basic job security and safety. 

Labor issues are at the heart of LGBTQ equality. In fact, even prior to the Stonewall Uprising, employment discrimination marches helped ignite the modern LGBTQ rights movement. 

Frank Kameny, who led these early protests in the 1960s, had been fired from a federal job in Washington, D.C. because of his homosexuality. One picket sign read simply, “Homosexuals Ask for Equality Opportunity Dignity.” A simple request, but one that has yet to be fully recognized. 

The patchwork of conflicting laws and religious exemptions continue to make it difficult for many in the LGBTQ community to have the opportunity to succeed in today’s workplace. 

From Bathroom Bills to Workplace Protections

North Carolina’s infamous HB2 led to statewide boycotts, mass protests and a series of battles for LGBTQ protections. A legacy of the bill and its very loosely dubbed “compromise” HB 142 was a ban on local protections, including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing, that sunset on December 1, 2020. 

Since then, 18 communities across the state have adopted non-discrimination ordinances, including in Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Asheville, and most recently Raleigh. 

In April, Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality North Carolina applauded the signing of ordinances across Wake County. “No one should have to fear bigotry based on their ZIP code, nor should they have to move to avoid discrimination,” said Johnson in a statement. 

Lacking explicit protections at the state and federal level impacts workers across the state, especially those in small businesses. The challenges are even greater for Black LGBTQ people who face discrimination on multiple fronts, and the LGBTQ workforce coincidingly faces many of the same issues as their non-LGBTQ counterparts like transportation, safe working conditions and opportunities for advancement. 

Qnotes is launching a new series examining the challenges that LGBTQ people face in the workplace and the innovative projects that are making a difference. From grassroots organizations creating programs that broaden diversity and inclusion to mentorships that help transgender and gender nonconforming people navigate the job market, “OUTlook: Finding Solutions for Labor and Workplace Equality” will tell the untold stories of the LGBTQ workforce, while tracking legislative progress locally and nationally. 

Qnotes joins nine other newsrooms in a new labor reporting cohort launched by the Solutions Journalism Network to report on the issues affecting workers and the promising responses to those issues. The project will run through December 2022. 

Other newsrooms include the Arizona Luminaria, Casper Star-Tribune, El Tecolote, Gambit, Graham Media Group, New York Amsterdam News, Prism, The Beacon and WMMT/Mountain Community Radio. 

The Solutions Journalism Network is an independent, nonprofit organization that advocates an approach of solutions journalism, an evidence-based mode of reporting on the responses to social problems. Qnotes has previously been a part of the organization’s Renewing Democracy initiative and its work on reporting on economic mobility in the 2021 series, “Stories of Black LGBTQ Resilience and Economic Mobility.” The publication is also part of seven major media companies and other local institutions that comprise the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. 

Share Your Story

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling on Aimee Stephens’ case, along with those of Gerald Bostick and Donald Zarda, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and the ACLU released an open letter to America’s employers written by Stephens.

Aimee Stephens at the Protect LGBTQ Workers Rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on October 8, 2019. Photo:  Elvert Barnes Photography, marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

“The justices of the Supreme Court will soon determine whether transgender people like me and all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people throughout America are in fact afforded basic employment protections under our nation’s bedrock civil rights law,” wrote Stephens. 

The letter posed a pretty simple message and connected to the profound experiences she had witnessed in her job as a funeral director – the way people faced those days immediately following someone’s death, the concepts of service and the sanctity of everyone’s life. 

“The intimacy of grief shows us something universal: that a sense of belonging is life-sustaining,” said Stephens. “And that, even in death, we all need a place where we belong. To me, belonging is that special combination of making people feel seen, feel recognized, and feel like a valued part of the community.” 

That is what labor and workplace equality is all about. Over the next few months, we will share more of those stories. We will investigate solutions that are making an impact on the lives of LGBTQ people, and we will share the experiences of our community. Share your story with us. 

Have you been fired because of your sexual orientation or gender identity? Have you faced discrimination in the workplace? 

Do you know of an organization, or have a story about how local LGBTQ communities are helping workers address challenges like transportation, healthcare access or family care that impact a person’s ability to keep a job or grow professionally? 

Do you know of a program that is increasing access to jobs for LGBTQ people? 

Share your story with Qnotes by emailing me at chrisrudisill@qnotescarolinas.com. 

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