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It’s a strange and momentous time for the American legal system. At the same time as we are all reckoning with its failures to ensure justice for many Americans as we watch police who have murdered unarmed civilians walk free and inquiries from the Justice Department maintain the status quo, we’re seeing landmark legal cases on many LGBT issues that could be building blocks of precedent that in some (limited) ways help keep people safer in the future. Right at this very moment, there are (at least) five lawsuits on behalf of LGBT people that may help shape the legal future of LGBT Americans. Let’s take a look at them:
Lesbian State Trooper Sues Under Title VII
Chelsea Raley, a lesbian Maryland State Trooper, has filed a lawsuit “accusing supervisors and co-workers of subjecting her to discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment based on her sexual orientation and gender.” Her lawsuit claims that she was made to do more work than her non-lesbian counterparts, written up for more infractions, and that her personal and dating life was allowed to be discussed at work to an inappropriate degree. Raley says that even though internal complaints were filed, nothing was done on her behalf. The basis of the lawsuit is an allegation that the State Police have violated both Title VII, the federal law which bans discrimination based on gender and which is seeing increasing use in lawsuits pertaining to LGBT discrimination, and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation. This is kind of an interesting example because most of the cases which have relied upon Title VII have done so because the state didn’t have anti-discrimination language that included sexual orientation, which is not the case for Raley and Maryland. From the Washington Blade:
One question LGBT rights attorneys may have for Raley and her attorneys is why her lawsuit didn’t make the legal claim that Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act covers sexual orientation as a form of sex discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and some federal courts have recognized that sexual orientation “qualifies” as discrimination on the basis of “sex” within the meaning of Title VII. One possible answer to that question is Raley didn’t have to make that claim because the Maryland non-discrimination law that she has invoked in her lawsuit explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. LGBT rights attorneys have attempted to use the Title VII claim in cases filed in states that do not have legal LGBT rights protections like Maryland.
Two Students Sue for Fair Treatment in School Under Title IX
In Kenosha, WI, a young trans student is suing the school district regarding his restroom access, and a judge has found that the case so far “[supports] a plausible violation of both Title IX or unlawful discrimination under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment,” at least enough so that she’s refused to dismiss the suit, as the opposition requested. His lawsuit says that “district officials denied him access to the boys’ restrooms, intentionally and repeatedly used his birth name and female pronouns to identify him; instructed guidance counselors to issue bright green wristbands to Whitaker and any other transgender students to more easily monitor their bathroom use; and required him to room with girls on overnight school trips.”
Lance Sanderson wasn’t allowed to take his male date to homecoming last year; now he’s suing his all-boys Catholic school. Since his failed campaign to be allowed to bring his date, he says he’s faced such poor treatment at school that he decided to finish his senior year at home. (Title IX)
Both of these cases are hoping to succeed based upon an interpretation of Title IX, a federal law which has traditionally been interpreted to apply to discrimination based upon sex in school settings, as also applying to sexual orientation and gender identity. As NBC notes, this tactic has seen some success recently: “Earlier this year, a federal appeals court sided with that interpretation when it ruled in favor of a transgender boy who is suing his Virginia school board for the right to use the boys’ bathroom in accordance with his gender identity. A federal judge in California came to a similar conclusion, meanwhile, when he ruled last year in favor of two lesbians who sued their college, Pepperdine University, for prohibited discrimination under Title IX.”
Trans Prisoner Sues Prison Officials Who Allowed Her Sexual Assault
A 20-year-old trans woman incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center for a failure to appear in court and who was housed with male inmates says that when she was raped and called for help, no one came to her aid. “At all times during the rape, Plaintiff repeatedly screamed for help, but no deputy ever came to the cell to investigate,” the lawsuit states. The plaintiff says that prisoners were allowed to choose their own cells, and she chose to be on her own, but that Mackey was later added to the cell.” The lawsuit also seeks to address the fact that the plaintiff was jailed with male prisoners at all, something which could have significance as a precedent depending upon the future of the suit.
Two North Carolina Lawsuits Come to an End
These two aren’t going to set any crucial legal precedent (because they’re not even going to be ruled on) but they are interesting.
Three couples who were suing the North Carolina law that allows “magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs” have had their case dismissed, because a judge ruled they lacked legal standing and “lacked evidence showing they were harmed directly by the law.” The plaintiffs plan to appeal and are headed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the same time, Governor Pat McCrory has quietly withdrawn his lawsuit against the federal government that attempted to enshrine the anti-trans HB2 and oppose the Department of Justice’s ruling that HB2 should not be enforced. That link at Slate has some more commentary on that decision, but the long and short of it is that the lawsuit was never intended as a real legal challenge; it would likely be thrown out anyway if McCrory allowed it to proceed.
It’s important to remember in all of this that even unmitigated success in a courtroom is limited in terms of its impact on real people; the letter of the law requires that it be consistently and justly enforced in order to help the people it’s meant to protect, and of course we know that that doesn’t always happen. At the same time, the stronger these legal precedents can be shored up to be, the more concern any individual entity or institution might feel about risking a lawsuit. It’s slow progress, but it’s worth hoping for.