Tuesday, October 8, 2019, the Supreme Court heard arguments on three historic cases that will determine LGBTQ+ workplace rights for decades. These cases will determine whether the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbids discrimination “on the basis of sex” also forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender presentation or trans identity. According to USA Today, “The three plaintiffs are Gerald Bostock, 55, a former child welfare services coordinator from Georgia; Donald Zarda, a former New York skydiving instructor who died at 44 in 2014 but is represented by his sister and former partner; and Aimee Stephens, 58, a former funeral home worker from Michigan who is transgender.” A decision is not expected until June of 2020.
Two weeks ago, I was asked to present to a group of financial corporations about dressing visibly queer in the workplace. I was asked to turn in my proposed slides for editing and approval, and soon after received a call from one of the firms representing the larger sponsor stating that they had concerns about my slides detailing fashion as being “political.” Of particular concern was the slide below:
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Two weeks ago, I was asked by a corporate group to speak to employees about dressing visibly queer in the workplace. When they asked to vet my slides, they initially said the slide shown here might not be approved because it is “too political.” I pushed back hard because, how can we talk about the consequences of dressing visibly queer in the workplace without talking about laws that govern queer bodies? I argued for the slide to remain and I presented it! Here is one of many reasons why, via @autostraddle Today, October 8th, “The Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments in two cases that will determine workplace discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ persons for decades to come. The first case, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, concerns, ‘whether discrimination against an employee because of sexual orientation constitutes prohibited employment discrimination “because of… sex” within the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.’ The Court will also hear arguments for a third case on October 8th concerning a transgender woman who was fired from her job at a funeral home shortly after disclosing to her supervisor her intent to transition. This case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, considers the same question as Bostock and Zarda, whether Congress intended for Title VII’s prohibition on employment discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ to extend to transgender individuals. In 1989 in the case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Court held that firing someone for not conforming to stereotypical gender norms violated Title VII. That’s to say the federal workplace protections at issue here are decades old at this point. In one of the government’s briefs arguing against Title VII protections, lawyers made a claim that would undermine protections for cisgender heterosexual people who deviate from ‘typical’ gender norms. A conservative majority opinion in Harris Funeral Homes could conceivably allow for an employer to legally discriminate against cis women who wear pants or eschew makeup, and leave employees with workplace protections only if their state government has passed them.”
The representative of the firm who was vetting content for the event sponsor felt that my slide was calling Trump “trash” (which, the slide is merely stating a fact) and might alienate some allies in the audience. I was immediately taken aback. For me, fashion is political, period. How can I talk about dressing visibily queer in the workplace if I could not talk about the actual laws that govern queer bodies in the workplace? For all people. There is no science that proves pearls are feminine and bow-ties are masculine. Fashion is a social construct and its political nature is THE reason that humans throughout history have used it as a means of social control (feet binding) to radical resistance and self affirmation (women being arrested for wearing pants). Queers have been at the forefront of dismantling gender binaries through beauty and fashion, which has led to greater emancipatory potential for all members of society.
Aside from LGBTQ+ rights being human rights, these cases will also impact our allies. For example, in the case of Aimee Stephens, one of her former employer’s many claims is that she will not be able to adhere to the companies “sex-based” dress code, stating, “There is no way that… [Ms. Stephens] would be able to present in such a way that it would not be obvious that it was [a man]” according to Vice. This turns back the clock on all workers, because this allows employers to continue to have archaic “sex-based” dress codes that could be enforced no matter your gender identity or presentation. This means that even a cis heterosexual woman could be fired for wearing pants if her employer enforces strict rules banning women from wearing pants and men from wearing skirts. Think it’s too far a conspiracy theory? Well, it’s happening already. Look at articles documenting claims that women are being fired for not wearing skirts, sent home for not wearing heels, and being pressured to wear makeup. Every day, we inch back to Handmaids Tale. (And I say back, because for many of us, that show is more a documentary of our history than a completely fictional dystopia).