Fort Belvoir, VA –
Mutual respect and tolerance can eliminate barriers that keep lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender federal employees from giving their best, a guest speaker from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said during an LGBT Pride Month observance June 17 at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.
Melissa Brand, an appellate review attorney for the EEOC, spends most of her day going over federal employee discrimination complaints, “many of which have been LGBT cases since 2012,” she said.
The Department of Defense repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited homosexuals from serving openly in the military in 2011, but Brand’s work is proof that more must be done so that members of the gay community can serve freely.
“We must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity. Anything less is not just wrong; it’s bad defense policy, and it puts our future strength at risk,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during an LGBT Pride Month ceremony at the Pentagon early this month.
The number of LGBT individuals who work for the federal government is unknown, because that data is not currently collected, Brand said. However, the Office of Personnel Management’s Annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which is voluntary and not sent to all agencies, does ask respondents to identify their gender. Approximately three percent of last year’s respondents identified as LGB or T.
“But 13 percent identified themselves as ‘prefer not to say.’ We don’t really know what that means, but the EEOC does have a workgroup that looks into issues of federal-sector employees. One of the things we found is that individuals who identify as ‘prefer not to say’ usually are not comfortable coming out in their workplace. So generally, anywhere from 3 to 13 percent of employees in the federal workplace could be LGB or T,” Brand said.
Discrimination against LGBT individuals dates back to the 1950s and the anti-communism campaign known as The Red Scare. At the same time, Senator Joseph McCarthy said gay men and women were more dangerous to the country than communists because they could be blackmailed to give up state secrets. That year, 600 federal employees were fired for being gay, and politicians bragged that they were firing one gay individual every other day at the State Department, Brand continued.
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order that prohibited gay men and women from working for the federal government. More than 100 agents were assigned to the FBI to find gay employees and remove them from service.
“People were subjected to grueling interrogations during this time. Many were fired based on very weak circumstantial evidence. It could have been a coworker who had a grudge,” she said. “More likely than not, people resigned instead of facing the possibility they’d be labeled as gay.”
The trend continued until 1998, when President Bill Clinton overturned Eisenhower’s order with Executive Order 13087, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The new law lacked enforcement rights, however, leaving it unclear whether LGBT individuals who suffered discrimination could go to the EEOC to get remedies, hearings or compensatory damages.
Sexual orientation is a person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender they’re attracted to, Brand said. For example, gay refers to people who are attracted to the same gender; lesbian is a woman attracted to another woman; and bisexual is a person who is attracted to both genders. Transgender, she added, is an umbrella term used to describe people whose identity or expression is different than the sex assigned to them at birth. For example a transgender woman is someone who was assigned the male sex at birth but internally identifies as a female.
According to a 2011 William Institute poll, 65.3 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees stated that they had experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace. Similarly, 97 percent of transgender employees reported that they were harassed or discriminated against.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers discrimination of individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and sex.
“But what ‘sex’ means in Title VII has often been debated in Congress and the courts. The EEOC used to have to argue that sexual harassment of a sexual nature was covered by Title VII. Employers used to argue with us and say no, it’s just whether you’re male or female,” Brand said.
The Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the EEOC, ruling that Title VII does offer coverage to gay and bisexual individuals in certain circumstances. Brand described several cases between employees and their agencies, such as Tamara Lusardi vs. the U.S. Army, which surfaced last year. Lusardi was a transgender woman who was prevented from using the women’s restroom while working at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. The EEOC’s ruling required the Army to pay compensatory damages to Lusardi and mandated equal opportunity training for workers at Redstone’s Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center.
Brand said she’s often asked how people should refer to LGBT individuals. While it’s often best to simply ask a person how they want to be referred to, Brand suggested using words such as gay man, gay woman, gay people, lesbian, bisexual, asexual or LGBT. Terms she said are considered offensive include homosexual, homo, fag or faggot, sexual preference, gay lifestyle, that’s so gay, queen, dyke and queer.