Until last spring, if a transgender Alaskan was discriminated against or harassed in the workplace, there was nowhere to turn. A recent decision by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) changed that.
Last April, the EEOC unanimously decided that an employer who discriminates against an employee or applicant on the basis of their transgender status or gender identity is in fact violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex. The opinion was lauded as a “breakthrough” and a “sea change” for the rights of transgender Americans. In fact, the EEOC set a precedent that opens the door for transgender people to take action if they are discriminated against in the workplace—even in states like Alaska, where there are no local or state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
Here is what the ruling means—and doesn’t mean—for Alaskans:
1) Most employers—private or public—who have 15 or more employees must abide by EEOC laws, no matter how their local laws are written. So if you are transgender and believe that you are a target of employment discrimination, you can file a charge to have your case investigated by the EEOC. Find contact information here or learn about filing a charge on the EEOC web page.
2) Given that local laws haven’t changed, and the federal law has only been further clarified, it’s unlikely that most Alaskan employers are aware that they are vulnerable to federal legal action if they discriminate against transgender applicants and employees. An employer education campaign—in advance of any incident of discrimination—could go a long way toward preventing it from ever happening.
3) EEOC laws only relate to employment—not housing or public accommodations—so there is still a need for additional protections on a local, state, and federal level to protect transgender people from other forms of discrimination. Furthermore, the EEOC still does not protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, nor do any federal laws, or any state or local laws in Alaska.
4) If you live outside of Anchorage: Representatives of The Alaska State Human Rights Commission plan to refer any complaints of discrimination against transgender people to the EEOC, so you should go to the EEOC directly.
5) If you live or work in Anchorage: Pamela Basler, the Executive Director of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission (AERC), stated that the AERC would accept complaints of employment discrimination based on transgender status as sex discrimination. In addition, because Anchorage’s Title 5 nondiscrimination laws are modeled after Title VII in terms of the classes of people it protects, Basler said that the AERC would likely accept complaints of discrimination against transgender people in housing, education, and public accommodations as discrimination based on sex. This new policy hasn’t been tested yet, and an employer could always appeal to the courts, but the willingness of the AERC to even accept and investigate complaints against transgender people is a huge step forward for Alaska. Learn about the AERC and how to file a complaint in Anchorage here.
We might have preferred that it had been Alaskan lawmakers who had taken the initiative to protect transgender people from workplace discrimination. Fortunately, our government is structured in such a way that policymakers on the federal level can step in and ensure people are treated with the fairness and humanity that they deserve when state and local officials fail to do so. This was the case in southern states where many never willingly gave up the Jim Crow system, and it will likely be the case for states where the cards are overwhelmingly stacked against any efforts to make LGBTQ equality a reality on a local level.
The recent Title VII decision—and its local impact—is a reminder of how decisions made very far away from Alaska can positively affect the lives of our LGBTQ residents and why it is important to continue to direct some of our activist energies toward advancing changes on a federal level.
Tiffany is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Alaska. Email Tiffany.