Advocates for fairness and opportunity must watch the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming weeks as it prepares to hear cases that will define LGBTQ rights in a way not seen since the marriage equality decision. On Oct. 8, the court will hear three LGBT employment discrimination cases.
These cases, which involve a gay skydiving instructor, a gay child welfare worker and a transgender funeral home worker — all of whom were fired after coming out as gay or transgender — are an opportunity for the highest court to affirm protections from workplace discrimination for LGBTQ people.
The stakes are high, and the Supreme Court must take this opportunity to affirm that all LGBTQ people should have the opportunity to live free from harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
These cases also highlight a glaring gap in federal and state law. Although many federal courts and agencies have long held that firing someone simply for being transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual is unlawful sex discrimination, the United States lacks a federal law that enumerates specific protections from discrimination for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and public places.
Ultimately, Congress must pass a bill that ensures express and enduring protections for all LGBTQ people. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives made history by passing the Equality Act. But the Senate has yet to bring companion legislation to the floor. With LGBTQ Americans vulnerable across the country, there’s no time to wait — the U.S. Senate must take action now and pass this bill into law.
But here in West Virginia, we can — and should — take action that’s independent from the federal government. Until a federal bill is signed into law, it’s up to states like West Virginia to lead the way on this critical issue, because our friends and neighbors need these protections now.
People like Sam Hall, a gay man who left our state when his bosses at the coal mine didn’t protect him from harassment at work, need the Fairness Act, a law that would protect LGBTQ West Virginians from discrimination in employment, housing and public spaces.
It could help bring back Barbara Emmerth, a lesbian who left West Virginia decades ago to find an accepting community. When Barbara visits Parkersburg, her hometown, she feels a tug to move back. But city leaders failed in 2017 to extend protections to Barbara with a nondiscrimination ordinance, so why would she move back to a place that won’t protect her?
These are just a couple of the stories that we hear about. You’ve probably heard a few more. But even a few is far too many. These people have left their parents and their families behind. They’ve uprooted their lives and taken their talents elsewhere, to places where their rights would be protected.
Twelve municipalities in West Virginia have already stepped up to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances, but that isn’t enough. Of the 1.8 million people in our state, only 200,000 — or roughly 11 percent — are currently protected under those ordinances. But we all deserve to live, work and raise a family without fear of discrimination. With the continued population loss that we see year after year, we can’t afford to lose a single Mountaineer because they don’t feel welcome here.
In my role at Fairness West Virginia, I work alongside a growing chorus of voices made up of people of faith, business leaders and others who recognize the urgent need to protect our LGBTQ friends and neighbors from discrimination. Six in 10 West Virginians now support these protections, which will create a safer and fairer state for LGBTQ people in all walks of life.
These Mountaineers are speaking out for their LGBTQ friends, family and neighbors — people who are simply trying to work hard, provide for their families, and enjoy living in the greatest state in the nation. Here in West Virginia, we know that Mountaineers are always free. Let’s show the U.S. Supreme Court and Senate what freedom from discrimination looks like.