Moving forward to equal employment opportunityAround the Nation, Bottom Highlights, Online Only Thursday, June 25th, 2015
Commentary: Guest Commentary
Transgender people are being noticed in the media in an unprecedented way. It is a great flowering of the trans rights movement, and it is welcome. It is to be expected that, if we work hard, our activism will mature into positive rights for our community. However, it does not change the daily reality that we are a marginalized community, particularly for our trans communities of color. One of the primary issues facing us is lack of economic opportunity because of employment discrimination. National statistics suggest that there is much higher than average unemployment, underemployment and on-the-job harassment within the community. Statistics from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that hundreds of complaints involving gender identity have been brought since 2013, when it started keeping such statistics, and the number of complaints is increasing. This discrimination affects so many areas of life: finding good medical care and the ability to transition, obtaining safe housing, family acceptance, fair treatment during divorce and custody hearings, and retaining one’s sense of self-worth as an individual, to name a few. It also means that trans people have less to donate to non-profit trans organizations, resulting in a paucity of community infrastructure. It’s wonderful that privileged community leaders are being featured in the media. If we seize this moment, we can begin the long process of lifting ourselves out of poverty.
As an attorney, one of those who has received the privileges of a legal education, I have dedicated myself to helping trans employees receive justice in the legal system. It is my job to educate employers through the legal process that discrimination against trans employees does not pay. My law firm has obtained settlements against several employers that included requirements of policy changes and training for management and employees. We currently have 20 active cases around the country, each representing a trans employee who has been subjected to serious employment discrimination. Each of these cases represents a chance to educate those employers, and other employers who will read about these cases, that trans discrimination does not pay. Every month we receive more contacts from trans employees who are experiencing problems with discrimination. While I wholeheartedly support efforts to amend our civil rights laws to include gender identity and sexual orientation, it is through the courts that we will obtain the respect that we are owed. We don’t need new law to help trans employees – the federal civil rights law has already been interpreted by most federal courts to protect employees experiencing discrimination based on gender identity or expression. What we need is to educate the trans community that you are protected, right now, from discrimination under federal law. You are protected no matter what area of the country you are in.
Take a look at the increasing number of cases on behalf of trans employees that have recently been in the media – the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit against a Florida medical clinic on behalf of my client, and the EEOC lawsuit against a Michigan Funeral Home, my client’s lawsuit against Saks Fifth Avenue, the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against an Oklahoma university on behalf of another of my clients, the successful lawsuit by a federal employee against the Army and many others. A review of the legal magazines read by company employment lawyers show that these high-profile actions are being noticed by employers. Management suites all over the country are taking steps to try to stem the tide of anti-trans discrimination. But despite all good intentions, the ship cannot be turned around in a day or a year. We must continue to encourage them by bringing these issues to light before the EEOC and the federal courts.
What can you do? Document your discrimination, and find a lawyer who will help you. Provide moral support to a friend who is experiencing discrimination to do so. Many employment lawyers will take such cases on contingency, meaning no legal fee unless you recover. We also need more lawyers with expertise in these issues who are willing to take on these cases. As co-chair of the Transgender Law Symposium, being held this summer in Chicago, I can tell you that we are working hard to educate attorneys about all aspects of trans law, including employment discrimination. If you are a lawyer, please come and learn about these cases, and take on a trans client.
The decision to prosecute a lawsuit is a serious one, which requires much time and effort and can exact an emotional toll. I do not mean to suggest that one should bring a lawsuit without serious reason to do so. However, if you have experienced discrimination at work, and you are prepared to take the time and effort necessary to work with an attorney to bring the issue to the legal authorities, I urge you to find a lawyer in your area who can assist you. You can also find specific information about what to do if you are experiencing discrimination, how litigation works and workplace transition guidelines on my Web site, jtweisslaw.com. The more that we stand up for ourselves, the more respect we will command in the workplaces of America, the more we will lift our community out of poverty, and the more we will be able to participate in the American dream of equality for all.
Dr. Jillian T. Weiss has a J.D. and a Ph.D. in Law, Policy & Society. Currently Professor of Law and Society at Ramapo College of New Jersey, her research area is gender identity and law. She is also principal of the Law Office of Jillian T. Weiss, P.C., along with her associate, Ezra Young. She has represented over thirty transgender employment discrimination plaintiffs around the country.
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