Local LGBTQ+ leaders respond to historic Supreme Court decision

Published: Jun. 17, 2020 at 8:22 AM EDT
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Local LGBTQ+ leaders continue the fight for universal equality after a historic Supreme Court decision earlier this week that now protects gay and transgender workers by law.

Vermont was one of the first states to pass a comprehensive statewide law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in 1992.

In 2007, Vermont became the third state in New England to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. So local advocates say it may come as a surprise to Vermonters these protections weren't already in place on a federal level and proves there's a lot of work to be done.

"I felt a tremendous sense of relief. It was like, OK. I felt validated or protected," said Mike Bensel, the executive director at the Pride Center of Vermont.

Bensel has been following the Supreme Court fight to cover gay and transgender workers in the 1964 Civil Rights Act employment discrimination protection since it was presented last October.

Bensel says while this momentous victory couldn't have come at a better time during Pride Month, it was a long time coming.

"I feel like this should have happened years and years ago," said Bensel.

For years, the Pride Center's Safe Space Anti-Violence Program has supported people who experience workplace and housing discrimination.

Bensel says two-thirds of the LGBTQ+ community navigate those barriers every single day, especially trans and nonbinary folks and LGBTQ+ people of color.

He says this landmark decision gives his team another tool to hold employers accountable.

"This really feels like a much-needed win at this time," said Bensel.

Local experts say they'd argue it's an even bigger win than the 2015 Supreme Court decision to permit same-sex marriage.

"The right to employment without having to worry that your sexuality or your gender identity is going to get you fired, will touch far more people than the right to marry ever could," said Ellen Andersen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

The decision comes on the heels of President Donald Trump finalizing a rule removing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people when it comes to health care and health insurance.

"We all felt like we were kicking the teeth on Friday. And I think most people don't, like the general person, does not pay attention to administrative rules making, which is what this was. It's just pieces of paper that get pushed, but this piece of paper, this interpretation, could be so horribly bad," said Andersen.

Still, Andersen says many are shocked Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch seemingly defied conservative beliefs.

"The whole way he got his seat reeked of pure partisan politics," said Andersen.

And Gorsuch handed down his opinion on the heels of President Donald Trump finalizing a rule removing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people when it comes to health care and health insurance.

"This was a sorely needed bit of good news in the midst of a slew of bad news," said Andersen.

Advocates like Bensel say passing the Equality Act, which will protect LGBTQ folks from discrimination in all key areas of life, should be the next focus.

He says employers need to hire LGBTQ workers and adopt affirming hiring practices, safe spaces.

The Pride Center has trainers on staff who can teach employers how to do that. They are looking to launch a program supporting LGBTQ job candidates and encourage employers to consider hiring them seriously, through the hiring process.