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EEOC breaks ground with sexual orientation discrimination suits

It would be hard to deny the fact that the cause of equal rights for the GLBT community has made significant progress - particularly in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage nationwide; and many states have also passed laws banning employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a federal law banning such discrimination. And because sexual orientation is not an explicit class protected in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long been unable to file lawsuits in cases of alleged sexual orientation discrimination. Recently, however, the EEOC made history when it filed two cases against private employers on behalf of gay and lesbian workers who had faced workplace discrimination.

In two separate cases, a gay man and a lesbian woman were subjected to offensive insults and anti-gay epithets by superiors at their respective places of work. In the first case, the harassment became so bad that the man felt compelled to quit. In the second case, the woman was fired by her harasser after she complained about the harassment to management.

So why has the EEOC suddenly gained the authority to file lawsuits related to sexual orientation discrimination? Although it is not specifically listed as a protected class in the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC made a determination last year that sexual orientation discrimination is de facto sex discrimination.

In a previous court brief, the EEOC explained that "sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves sex stereotyping." In these types of cases, gay and lesbian workers are treated differently "because their orientation does not conform to heterosexually defined gender norms."

Although these two lawsuits are groundbreaking on the national level (and should be celebrated for that reason), sexual orientation discrimination is already illegal here in California - as is discrimination based on gender identity.

If you have been harassed at work, fired or suffered other employment discrimination as a result of your sexual orientation or gender identity, please discuss your case with an experienced employment law attorney.