Today, on a 27-21 vote, the House Labor Committee approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), H.R. 3685, which would ban discrimination in private employment based on "actual or perceived sexual orientation." Many gay-rights groups, including most notably the national gay legal organization Lambda Legal, oppose the bill because it does not include "gender identity," a phrase that would protect transsexuals and other gender nonconformists from discrimination.
In a recent blog post, I criticized the view taken by Lambda Legal that the “weak” ENDA just passed by the Labor Committee – the version excluding “gender identity” – would provide insufficient employment protection to gay people. That critique was shared by lawyers and commentators in the blogosphere (for especially well-reasoned critiques, see Chris Crain's analysis here and John Aravosis' analysis here). Rep. Barney Frank, who introduced H.R. 3685 after he and other House leaders determined on a vote count that a broader bill could not pass, criticized Lambda by name in a lengthy and passionate speech on the floor of the House. I also heard privately from attorneys and supporters associated with Lambda, including experienced gay-rights litigators, who opposed Lambda’s legal critique of a limited ENDA on purported gay-rights grounds.
Lambda has now offered a detailed and substantive response to these critiques. Lambda’s concerns have to be taken seriously, coming as they do from an organization with experienced lawyers and a rich history of doing important work for the legal rights of gay Americans. As I’ll explain below, while Lambda has offered a clearer and more reasonable explanation of its views, its concerns remain exaggerated. The House should not reject H.R. 3685 out of misplaced concern for gay employees.
Given its institutional role and mission, Lambda’s strong desire for an expansive ENDA including both sexual orientation and gender identity is perfectly understandable. If I were a plaintiff's lawyer or headed an organization of civil-rights legal advocates, I would want as broad a set of civil-rights laws as I could get so that I would have instances of discrimination covered in every possible way, whether based on sexual orientation, gender identity, some combination or overlap of these, or something else. I would especially want the broadest possible coverage in an era when courts do indeed seem increasingly to read the liability and remedial provisions of civil-rights statutes quite narrowly. If the choice were, then, between an ENDA that included both gender identity and sexual orientation and an ENDA that included only sexual orientation, that would be an easy call. But if Barney Frank is right that the votes aren't there right now for a trans-inclusive ENDA, and I certainly don't have the political acumen or inside knowledge of Congress to say that he's wrong, the real choice is between passing out of the House a "gay-only" ENDA or no ENDA.
Given that choice, I think a good litigator or civil-rights advocate would want to maintain the political momentum created by House passage of a gay-only ENDA unless he thought it would do more damage than good or would accomplish so little good that other considerations (of fairness to trans people or justice or something else) would override.
Lambda's Legal Concerns
Lambda’s legal worry is that a limited ENDA might accomplish very little good and might even backfire, eliminating existing protections in federal law. It comes down to a concern that effeminate gay men and masculine lesbians might effectively have no legal protection from discrimination for their gender nonconformity under federal law if a limited ENDA passes. Right now, gender nonconforming gays have better arguments for legal protection than do gender conforming gays under federal law. After a limited ENDA passes, worries Lambda, an employer might successfully argue that it discriminated against the plaintiff based on her gender nonconformity (her being a masculine woman) and not her sexual orientation (her being a lesbian).
I have previously written on this blog that, as a practical and factual matter, it would be rare to see a case in which comments and actions based on a person’s gender nonconformity (“hey man, you walk like a girl”) were not accompanied by comments directed explicitly at a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation (“hey faggot”). I base this observation on the many reported Title VII cases in which employees were subjected both to anti-gay abuse and to sex stereotypes. The two kinds of discrimination tend to go together, which is why federal courts keen on excluding sexual orientation protection from Title VII have thrown out what would otherwise be perfectly good sex stereotyping cases that involve gay plaintiffs or any whiff of anti-gay discrimination: they think gay plaintiffs are trying to make sexual-orientation claims disguised as sex-stereotyping claims.
If, as I predict, the large run of cases in which an employee suffers sex-stereotyping or gender-nonconformity discrimination are accompanied by direct evidence of anti-gay discrimination then the employee should have a cognizable claim under even a limited ENDA prohibiting only sexual-orientation discrimination. Federal courts that have previously withheld Title VII protections from gay plaintiffs claiming sex stereotyping should also have some of their policy concerns alleviated once gay people are actually protected in federal law under a limited ENDA.
Lambda makes no response to these arguments about the factual patterns in anti-gay discrimination cases or to the possibility that protecting gays from discrimination in federal law might reduce the pressure courts feel to disaggregate sexual orientation from gender nonconformity under Title VII.
In this connection, Lambda has all but abandoned its reliance on Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, 398 F.3d 211 (2d Cir. 2005), which it originally claimed in an open letter to Rep. Frank was an instance where an employer successfully argued that it fired a lesbian for being too masculine under a state law that prohibited only sexual-orientation discrimination. Neither the facts in the case nor the court’s discussion of the relevant law supported that view, as I discussed at length in my previous post. Lambda now calls that case a "sideshow." I agree.
Having found no reported decisions to support its fears, now Lambda says that we should be unsurprised since there are few reported cases dealing with sexual-orientation statutes. There aren’t a lot of such cases, but we do have experience with state, local, and county laws stretching back some three decades. The fact that inventive employers with high-priced lawyers haven’t successfully defeated even a single claim in a reported decision on grounds suggested by Lambda undercuts the reasonableness of Lambda’s fear that a limited ENDA will be insufficient. The further fact that, as Lambda puts it, many cases do not make it to a stage where there’s a reported decision (either because of settlement, or because the claim is weak, or because a plaintiff’s lawyer won’t take the case, or is inexperienced) neither supports nor undermines the view that a gay-only law doesn’t adequately protect gays. The fact that many cases settle, for example, may simply be evidence that employers are not confident about the success of the contorted we-like-gays-but-not-gender-benders legal theory Lambda hypothesizes. In short, the absence of published evidence for Lambda’s view is not evidence for Lambda’s view.
But let’s assume, contrary to what we should expect as a factual matter based on past decisions, that an employer manages to persuade a court that the real basis for its discrimination was the lesbian’s gender nonconformity rather than her sexual orientation. Such a plaintiff, Lambda hypothesizes, might then be put in a double-bind. (1) On the one hand, she would not have protection for her gender nonconformity under a limited ENDA because it would omit protection for “gender identity,” defined in an earlier version of ENDA (H.R. 2015) to mean “gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual.” (2) On the other hand, Lambda fears that she might not have protection for her gender nonconformity under Title VII because federal courts might abandon the current interpretation of that law, under which “sex stereotyping” is considered a form of prohibited sex discrimination.
Protection for Gender Nonconformity in a Limited ENDA
First, is it true that there will be no protection for gender nonconforming homosexuals under a limited ENDA? Lambda undersells the potential of a limited ENDA for its macho lesbian. Gay people are often associated with certain gender-nonconforming traits. Recall that H.R. 3685 actually prohibits discrimination “because of [an] individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.” (emphasis added) Under this language, if the employer “perceives” the employee is a lesbian based on her gender nonconforming behavior or appearance, and discriminates against her for this reason, the employer has violated even the limited ENDA.
A possible problem with this view is that it doesn’t seem to reach the presumably rare case where the employer successfully argues that the perceived lesbianism of the plaintiff had nothing to do with the discrimination; it was her mannishness that got her into trouble. Another potential problem is that, having introduced an expansive ENDA with “gender identity” included before adequately counting votes for the bill in the House, overly optimistic gay- and trans-rights activists have now handed opponents a weak but plausible argument that the elimination of “gender identity” from the bill means there should be no protection for even gender nonconformity associated with homosexual orientation under the limited ENDA. There will be a debate about all of this in litigation and I expect that Lambda, having argued now that a limited ENDA is inadequate, will argue after it passes that it does cover discrimination against homosexuals arising from their gender nonconformity. Whether and to what extent gender-nonconforming gay plaintiffs might be successful with these claims we can’t know.
Protection for Gender Nonconformity in Title VII
More importantly for our purposes, how reasonable is the second fear, that there might be no protection for gender nonconformity under Title VII if a limited ENDA passes? Lambda worries that increasingly conservative courts “profoundly unsympathetic toward plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases generally” and hostile to gay-rights litigants in particular, might latch on to the elimination of “gender identity” from ENDA as evidence that Congress intended to eliminate protection from gender-nonconformity discrimination under Title VII. Lambda cites, as examples of courts’ hostility to civil-rights plaintiffs, cases involving race and other forms of discrimination in which Lambda believes the courts took unduly restricted views of civil-rights laws.
Lambda exaggerates the aggressiveness of conservative federal courts. These same courts have, for example, now interpreted Title VII to prohibit same-sex sexual harassment. Oncale v. Sundowners Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998). Of course, if you really believe that conservative judges are incapable of reaching principled (as opposed to result-oriented) decisions, and will throw out every rule of statutory construction and precedent to reach a preferred policy result, then you must despair that the addition of any words to ENDA will save you from their evil grip.
To assess whether this fear of wild and aggressive conservative courts is very plausible
The sex-stereotyping theory of Price Waterhouse has been followed by every circuit court to consider the issue, even the more conservative courts. Moreover, while the facts of Price Waterhouse involved a woman deemed too “macho” for a job, the same gender-nonconformity protection has been extended to effeminate men in cases like Nichols v. Azteca Restaurant Enterprises, Inc., 256 F.3d 864 (9th Cir.2001).
As its only example of right-wing judges undermining sex-stereotyping claims, Lambda says that Judge Richard Posner “disagreed” with Price Waterhouse in a concurring opinion in Hamm v. Weyauwega Milk Product, Inc., 332 F.3d 1058, 1067-68 (7th Cir. 2003) (Posner concurring). That’s an oversimplification. Actually, Posner supported the idea that discrimination for gender nonconformity may be evidence of sex discrimination in a case where both men and women are eligible for a job. But he was critical of the artificial distinction between homosexual plaintiffs and heterosexual plaintiffs claiming gender nonconformity discrimination that has arisen in the federal courts since Price Waterhouse. I assume Lambda also bemoans this distinction.
ENDA Does Not Limit or Amend Title VII
Do we have any good reason to believe that even conservative judges will be bold enough to hold that Congress has silently or impliedly overruled Price Waterhouse by passing ENDA without “gender identity” protection? There are several reasons to believe this concern is very far-fetched.
Start with the pedestrian point that ENDA is not an amendment of Title VII, so there’s no obvious reason ENDA should have a dramatic effect on it. Nothing in ENDA states that it is overruling part of Title VII. Nothing in the legislative history will say that Congress passed this expansion of civil rights law as a way to limit civil rights under Title VII.
In fact, the decisive response to Lambda’s fear about the effect on Title VII is contained in ENDA’s Section 15, entitled “Relationship to Other Laws”:
This Act shall not invalidate or limit the rights, remedies, or procedures available to an individual claiming discrimination prohibited under any other Federal law or regulation or regulation of a state or political subdivision of a state.
Any argument that Congress silently overruled part of Title VII in ENDA would be an argument that it “limit[s] the right [to be free of sex stereotyping] . . . available to an individual claiming discrimination prohibited under [Title VII].” That argument would fail under Section 15. Lambda does not even mention this section of ENDA in its analysis.
Second, when Congress wants to overrule federal court rulings it is quite capable of doing so explicitly. It did so when it overruled restrictive federal court decisions in 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It did so again recently when the House voted to overrule the Court’s recent Title VII statute of limitations decision. Congress does not have to resort to subterfuge to overrule the Court and it would be surprising to have a court find that it uncharacteristically did so by merely excluding a phrase from ENDA.
Third, consider how some basic principles of statutory construction would apply in a post-ENDA world. It would not be unusual for a court to claim that the failure to include something in Statute A (e.g., Title VII) should influence how we interpret Statute A (Title VII). It would be very unusual to suggest that (1) simple failure to include a phrase ("gender identity") (2) in the passage of Statute B (a limited ENDA) should be interpreted (3) to impliedly overrule two decades of consistent federal court interpretation (sex stereotyping) (4) under Statute A (Title VII). There is no precedent I have seen for that extremely dubious style of statutory interpretation. That is why Lambda, long a respected voice for its legal acumen and honesty, is on such thin ice.
It would also not be unusual for a court to consider the words used in one statute in its interpretation of words used in another statute involving the same subject matter in an effort to harmonize the public policy objectives embodied in the laws. But that, too, would not be a principle at issue here. There is no disharmony in having a Title VII that protects gender nonconformity and an ENDA that protects sexual orientation. They are complementary.
Besides, there are many other and more plausible understandings about why Congress took “gender identity” out of ENDA. The correct one would be simply that there weren’t enough votes to include it and hence that Congress wasn’t doing anything substantive by striking it from the bill. Another interpretation would be that Congress thought most of what would be protected by the definition of “gender identity” was already protected under Title VII (excepting transsexuality). Indeed, gender nonconformity is in some ways more generously protected under existing Title VII case law than it would be under an expanded ENDA, given the broad exemptions for “religious organizations” and other limitations on the scope of liability contained in both versions of ENDA.
A Hypothetical Gay Plaintiff's Options Under a Limited ENDA
Finally, Lambda posits that a plaintiff might be caught between the gender- nonconformity "rock" of a limited ENDA and the sexual-orientation "hard place" of Title VII. “Thus,” Lambda concludes, “a non-inclusive version of ENDA risks having a court decide that an employee cannot pursue a claim for sexual orientation discrimination because it concludes that what was going on was discrimination based on gender nonconformity, but then not allow a Title VII claim by reading the Price Waterhouse case overly narrowly.”
Contrary to Lambda’s assertion, it is the defendant employer that’s placed between the rock of the gay protections of a limited ENDA and the hard place of the gender-nonconformity protection of Title VII.
To see why, imagine you have a butch lesbian fired by a school in which she works. She argues that the school fired her either for her sexual orientation or her gender nonconformity or for some combination of these.
On the one hand, if the school fired her for being a lesbian she has a claim under the newly passed, gay-only ENDA. Her lawyers would point to the times she was called a "dyke" and was told to find a man to make her a real woman. Her lawyers would observe that the fact that the school employs other lesbians is no more a defense to the claim than the fact that an employer hires some black people is a defense to a claim of race discrimination. On the other hand, if the employer tries to weasel its way out of ENDA liability by saying that it fired her for being too butch, her lawyers would say that it was then liable for sex stereotyping under Title VII.
Therefore, if the employer tries to get out of Title VII liability by saying she’s a lesbian claiming sexual-orientation discrimination, it has walked right into ENDA. If it tries to get out of ENDA liability by saying she’s a gender bender claiming sex stereotyping, it has walked right into Title VII. Depending on the facts, if the employer's motives include hostility both to gender nonconformity and to sexual orientation the plaintiff can still say the discrimination was "because of" actual or perceived sexual orientation. Any way you slice it, the employer is stuck.
And if the employer, citing Lambda's letter to Barney Frank and its recent elaboration of the same concerns, tries to make the argument that Congress silently repealed two decades' worth of Title VII precedent on sex stereotyping by enacting an entirely separate federal law, her lawyers would make the excellent argument that this was not even a plausible interpretation of ENDA’s effect.
Since gender nonconformity already enjoys a large measure of protection under settled Title VII precedents, what's really at stake in the debate over whether to include "gender identity" in ENDA is protecting transsexuals from discrimination based on their transsexuality. This is a very small group of people and, short of being protected from discrimination in a larger bill like ENDA, they are not likely to get federal legislation protecting their employment interests unless a concerted effort is made on their behalf by political allies. That work has evidently not yet been done in sufficient measure by the groups who now oppose a limited ENDA out of solidarity with transsexuals.
The upshot is that it seems Lambda and many other gay organizations really oppose ENDA because they think it is simply wrong to exclude protection for transsexuality from a gay civil-rights law, even if that means waiting a significant additional time to pass any protection at all. I don’t share the view that protection for gays must await protection for transsexuals, but I understand and respect it. The appeal to gays’ legal self-interest, by contrast, is a diversion from the real issue.