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Workplace Discrimination  
 
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American case law is replete with stories of lesbians and gay men suffering discrimination at work. Lesbian and gay employees have been verbally abused, physically assaulted, and fired because of their sexual orientation. Until recently, lesbians and gay men who were discriminated against at their jobs had little or no legal recourse.

The situation has changed considerably over the last twenty years with the passage of anti-discrimination laws and with the rapid growth of anti-discrimination policies among private employers. Although there is still work to be done, the expansion of protection from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation stands as one of the significant accomplishments of the American lesbian and gay civil rights movement.

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Private Employers

National organizations and many local grassroots groups have worked on two fronts to protect lesbian and gay employees from discrimination. First, activists have encouraged private employers to adopt anti-discrimination policies. This strategy has met with great success, and in some respects the business world has moved well ahead of government in protecting the rights of lesbians and gay men and in recognizing their value to the diversity of the workplace.

Anti-discrimination policies, and the training sessions that often accompany them, educate employees about workplace discrimination and set the tone for proper office behavior. They can also be used as the basis of a breach of contract claim in court by employees alleging discrimination. Some, but not all, courts have held that company anti-discrimination policies found in employee handbooks create a promise of protection enforceable in court.

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 320 of all Fortune 500 Companies have anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. In all, HRC counts 2,295 employers, large and small, with anti-discrimination policies.

In a significant victory, Wal-Mart--with more than one million employees, the country's largest private employer--added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy in June 2003. The change came about through dedicated advocacy from outside and inside the company. A Seattle gay rights group, The Pride Foundation, purchased shares in Wal-Mart and for two years lobbied the company to change its policy. In announcing the new policy, Wal-Mart recognized the role of The Pride Foundation and other lobby groups, but insisted that "the most important factor" in bringing about the change was a letter from several gay Wal-Mart employees describing how they felt "excluded" at the company.

Wal-Mart became the ninth of the top ten Fortune 500 Companies to adopt a policy protecting lesbian and gay employees. The only top ten company not to have such a policy is ExxonMobil. Exxon had an anti-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation, but when it merged with Mobil, the newly formed company rescinded the policy. Activists continue to pressure ExxonMobil to re-adopt the policy. In 2001, HRC called for a nationwide boycott of the company until it changes its policy.

Statutory Protections

In addition to working with private employers, lesbian and gay civil rights groups have also campaigned for the passage of anti-discrimination statutes at the local, state, and federal levels.

Seattle, in 1973, and Minneapolis, in 1974, were the first large cities to pass ordinances protecting lesbians and gay men from discrimination in the workplace. Except for Aspen, Colorado (1977) and Detroit, Michigan (1979), all of the cities enacting anti-discrimination ordinances in the 1970s were liberal college towns: Alfred, New York (1974); Austin, Texas (1975); Amherst, Massachusetts (1976); Tucson, Arizona (1976); Champaign, Illinois (1977); Ann Arbor, Michigan (1978); Berkeley, California (1978); Yellow Springs, Ohio (1979); and Madison, Wisconsin (1979).

In the 1980s and 1990s the movement spread to include most of America's large cities (9 of the top 10 and 16 of the top 20 most populated cities), as well as many other smaller cities and towns as diverse as Fort Wayne, Indiana; Springfield, Massachusetts; Spokane, Washington; and Orlando, Florida.

As of July 2003, over 140 cities and counties prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in public and private employment, and another 125 have laws protecting public sector employees from discrimination, for a total of over 265 cities and counties with some form of workplace protection for lesbians and gay men.

The command of these ordinances to treat everyone in the workplace equally without regard to sexual orientation has helped make lesbians and gay men feel more secure in their jobs. If discrimination nevertheless occurs, employees can file complaints under the ordinances with their local human rights commissions.

The ordinances may have less value to lesbian and gay employees seeking to sue for relief in court. Some courts have held that local anti-discrimination ordinances can create rights enforceable in state court, but others have said that such ordinances exceed the local governments' home rule powers.

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