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To Fight Homophobia, We Need Workplace Rights

Meghan Maury
Amy Traub

A lack of protections from discrimination is one reason why LGBTQ people, and especially LGBTQ people of color and transgender people, are much more likely to experience precarious employment and/or be living in poverty.

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Meghan Maury, Policy Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, contributed the following guest blog to Demos:

I was first fired for my sexual orientation and gender expression at 19. 

I was working as a bank teller. It was the first job where I had ever made more than minimum wage. It wasn’t enough to live on, but it was close. 

My boss, John, called me into his office and told me he had good news and bad news. He shared the good news first—that he was getting a promotion. Then he shared the bad news—his replacement was a woman who had told him she didn’t like my lifestyle or my look. Three days later, she fired me.

My experience was far from unusual. Today, more than half of states still permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and jury service.

A lack of protections from discrimination is one reason why lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, and especially LGBTQ people of color and transgender people, are much more likely to experience precarious employment and/or be living in poverty. Forty percent of young people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ. Bisexual women are among the most likely to participate in SNAP, better known as food stamps. Transgender people are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty as the general population; 43 percent of Latinx and 38 percent of black transgender people live in poverty.

I wonder, sometimes, whether things would have been different if there had been non-discrimination protections in my state at the time. It’s possible that it would have; laws can press our social norms in the direction of progress, and it’s possible the woman would have felt differently, or would have been frightened of the legal repercussions of acting out her bias.

It’s also possible that everything would have happened in exactly the same way. Nondiscrimination protections are a critical part of the legal fabric that protects workers. But for me, like for many people who have marginalized identities, enforcement of those protections would have been out of reach when I needed it most.

The legal costs associated with bringing an employment discrimination lawsuit can run to the tens of thousands of dollars. A suit may also require an investment of time that’s not feasible for a person who is struggling to make ends meet.  

Reading Demos’ recent briefing book, Everyone’s Economy, I was struck by how critical the policies are to one another. The guarantee of fair employment works best when there are strong enforcement mechanisms in place and when people who need the protections the most can access enforcement. The freedom to join in union and negotiate at work is also a central part of how we ensure that people can access enforcement of their rights.

Labor unions are one of the critical tools that help people who are facing discrimination in the workplace access the mechanisms of enforcement. Workers who might otherwise be unable to afford the time or expense associated with a discrimination lawsuit can count on their union to help—but only if their rights to collective bargaining are secure.

Today, those rights are under attack. So-called right-to-work laws, which make it more difficult for workers to engage in collective bargaining and other union activities, are currently on the books in more than half the states. It’s no surprise that the map of states that have right-to-work laws and the map of states that lack LGBTQ non-discrimination laws are nearly identical. 

On the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), it is critical for us to consider how our economy impacts people living at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities. Today, we commit to fighting for workplace equity for LGBTQ people.

For more information, check out Intersecting Injustice, a recent publication from the LGBTQ Poverty Collaborative, which explores more deeply how workplace issues impact LGBTQ people who are living in poverty.