Until recently, it was legal in more than half of the states to fire workers for being gay, bisexual, or transgender. A Florida educator, for example, married her wife on Saturday and was fired on Monday. In another case, an Oregon educator was named teacher of the year—in part because of his LGBTQ advocacy—and attended a White House ceremony in his honor on Friday, and was fired for his sexual orientation on Monday. These terminations and others like it, are now, under federal law, illegal.
It’s been a long time coming for members and allies of the LGBTQ community: On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to protect LGBTQ workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Or, as the Court put it, “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” Over 100 federal statutes prohibit sex discrimination, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Court’s ruling should apply to those statutes as well.
“This means that educators can no longer be fired at work for who they love or who they are,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, adding that students are also protected under the federal law from discrimination at school.
While this is a momentous turning point for the LGBTQ community—particularly for “LGBTQ educators and students who endured discrimination yet continued to stand up to fight for themselves, their co-workers and their students—there is so much left to be done for full LGBTQ equality,” says Eskelsen García.
Anthony Beckett, a black, gay, middle school language arts teacher in Birmingham City Schools in Alabama, and Megan List, a transgender college professor from Youngstown, Ohio, agree that there is still more to do.
‘We Have a Really Long Way to Go’
Anthony Beckett was at home when the Supreme Court decision was announced. His reaction quickly went from “this is great” to “we have some real work to do,” says the educator of six years.
For students, Beckett hopes this ruling will give them the hope they need to be who they are and not have to develop a “contingency plan of ‘how am I going to exist being who I am, but sustain by having the money to live,’” he explains. “This [court decision] will open—in my optimistic belief—safer and braver spaces to have more realistic conversations with our students about the world.”
It will also be an opportunity for educators and school districts to reshape curricula so it’s welcoming and inclusive of everyone, to push students to dig deeper, ask clear and thoughtful questions, and build the critical thinking skills needed for success in school, college, and life.
“This decision…is requiring us to now be focused on forming 21st Century learners—and 21st Century learners don’t take standardized tests,” says Beckett. “Twenty-first Century learners need to know what’s going on in the world and have an understanding in why they think and feel in response to certain things. Not that it’s wrong, but do you understand why you feel this way? Can you articulate it? Can you advocate for yourself and stand firm in your decision, but also, if you get the education you need and the necessary exposure, are you okay with changing your mind?”
This will also require training, says Megan List, a professor at Ohio’s Youngstown State University and the Director of the Women and Gender Center Initiative.
List doesn’t mince her words: “The Supreme Court ruling is nothing until we have training. Until we have institutionalized processes that say [specific actions are forms] of discrimination,” adding that the workplace environment of the LGBTQ community will get better and she expects to see more trainings for anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
“The work is not over,” she adds. “We have a really long way to go and major organizations—including the NEA—that want to support this work will need to put forward their support in clear and overt ways so that people can’t dismiss it.”
Beckett agrees, “This ruling is going to be speaking to and addressing how we treat people and what infrastructure, systems and protocols are we going to put in place to make sure everyone is seen, treated, and heard as a human being?”
And NEA and its members are in a position to be a leading force in social change and social justice.
NEA’s Role in the Case and Steps to support LGBTQ Rights
NEA led a coalition of education groups in filing an amicus brief in the Supreme Court. The brief supported the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are forms of sex discrimination, arguing that LGBTQ discrimination is sex discrimination for the very same reasons that the Court ultimately embraced. The coalition included the National Schools Board Association, who had never before filed a brief in the Supreme Court on the side of expanding employee rights.
As part of the association’s ongoing commitment to LGBTQ rights, NEA is asking to join educators around the country in signing its pledge to stand up against hate and bias, which can be found on neaedjustice.org.
The site also offers professional development designed for all members, particularly those committed to addressing bias around sexual orientation and gender identity, this program teaches school personnel how to create a safe school climate for students and staff. Learn more at neacsjpd.org/training-session/safety-bias-lgbtq/
NEA is also active in supporting state and national legislation that guarantees protections against sexual and gender discrimination.
Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia, and two territories outlaw LGBTQ discrimination in employment, either by statute specifically prohibiting discrimination on those bases or because the state interprets prohibitions on discrimination based on sex to encompass discrimination on those bases.
At the national level, the Equality Act is a bill in the U.S. Congress that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit explicitly discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations and public education. The bill passed in the U.S. House in May 2019. It went to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked it from coming up for a vote.
Despite this historic Supreme Court victory, passage of the Equality Act remains necessary. NEA considers mobilizing in support of the Equality Act to be a top legislative priority. NEA has worked to educate members and affiliates on this issue. The Supreme Court’s decision should apply to sex discrimination law beyond employment law, but that will have to be ultimately settled in the courts absent Congressional action. Passing the Equality Act would announce and determine, once and for all, that LGBTQ discrimination violates federal law in all civil arenas—employment, education, housing, credit, health care, and more.
Save the Date: Upcoming NEA LGBTQ Engagements
LGBTQ Education Townhall: A Virtual Town Hall to discuss the Pandemics of Racism and COVID-19 on the LGBTQ Community, and the Historic SCOTUS Decision
June 26, 2020 – 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm ET:
Participating Organizations: NEA, HRC, GLSEN, & NQAPIA
Register here: neaedjustice.org/LGBTQtownhall/
LGBTQ SCOTUS Decision Webinar: Why the Supreme Court Ruling on LGBTQ Rights Is Such a Big Deal
June 30, 2020 – 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm ET
Join NEA Senior Counsel, Eric Harrington for a live video conference about what this ruling means and what’s next for our public schools.
Register here: neaEdJustice.org/PrideWins
2020 NEA & GLSEN Virtual Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Summit
Opening Session: Friday, August 28, 2020 – 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm ET
Sessions 1 & 2: Monday, August 31, 2020 – 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm ET
Sessions 3 & 4: Tuesday, September 1, 2020 – 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm ET
Sessions 5 & 6: Wednesday, September 2, 2020 – 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm ET
Closing Session: Wednesday, September 3, 2020 – 8:00 pm – 8:30 pm ET
For more information, contact Anthony Brisson, firstname.lastname@example.org