This editorial was written in collaboration with Chris Lugo, the executive director of OUT Georgia Business Alliance.
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue one of the most important rulings to date regarding the status of LGBTQ rights in this country. Two gay men, Donald Zarda of New York and Gerald Bostock of Clayton County, and a transgender woman, Aimee Stephens of Michigan, assert that their respective firings violated the employment protections in Title VII of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act. Specifically, they have argued that the prohibition of sex discrimination within Title VII covers LGBTQ people because discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be separated from the long-held precedent that stereotyping based on sex is covered by this law.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court ultimately rules, we know that we have a long way to go before the promise of equal protection under the law becomes a reality for the estimated 420,000 youth and adults who identify as LGBTQ in Georgia. That’s one of the primary reasons that Georgia Equality and the OUT Georgia Business Alliance have formed a partnership. The goal of this partnership is to strengthen the missions of both organizations and employ our networks and relationships to build meaningful community connections and impact across the State of Georgia.
In a time of economic insecurity, it is imperative that people know that the law will protect them against discrimination in employment and that LGBTQ business owners know their businesses will be treated fairly when it comes to governmental assistance, loans and contracts.
Many people are surprised to learn that Georgia, despite our heritage of civil rights advocacy, is one of only three states in the country that has no state law protecting any group of people against employment discrimination and one of only five states that offers no protection when it comes to public accommodations. Surveys of LGBTQ Georgians indicate that 45% of us, including 33% of people who identify as transgender, have experienced discrimination or harassment on the job. Additionally, 48% percent of us, including 33% of transgender Georgians, have been denied services, intimidated, or have been verbally abused while shopping, receiving health care, or visiting a governmental agency.
And it’s not just LGBTQ Georgians who have little recourse when it comes to legal protections. While federal law does protect people against discrimination based on race, nationality, religion and disability, it can be a costly and time-consuming effort to file a federal lawsuit.
It is well documented that religious minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs and Jews experience discrimination, often because they are targeted due to their dress. For the past several months, we’ve heard stories of Asian Americans, including many Asian American businesses, being targeted for harassment and abuse for the baseless notion that the COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally spread by those of Chinese descent. While laws cannot stop such misguided and biased actions, they do serve as statements of community values and can serve as a powerful deterrent to those who would act upon their bias to harm others.
Faith leaders and social justice organizations have long argued for the need to address discrimination by passing state laws and local ordinances. And while the business community has broadly condemned efforts to enshrine discrimination into the Georgia Code by opposing overly broad religious exemptions that allow someone’s religious beliefs to excuse discriminatory behavior, the business community has been reluctant to support efforts to pass nondiscrimination laws on the state or local level.
Despite being home to 25 large businesses, including 14 with a score of 100, that participate in the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)’s annual Corporate Equality Index, not a single corporation with a presence at the legislature has prioritized passage of a statewide civil rights law in its work at the Capitol. These companies, most of whom are leaders when it comes to LGBTQ diversity and inclusion in the workplace, are still reluctant to take a position on this issue. This is regardless of the fact that various polls show that between 65–74% of Georgians support such legislation and that research by groups such as Out Leadership and the Williams Institute clearly make the economic case that such laws will enhance Georgia’s business climate.
It’s not just the voice of big corporations or large chambers of commerce that is needed to advance a legislative solution to the discrimination many of us face. Two of the three cases currently before the US Supreme Court all originated from the actions of small businesses. The 2018 SCOTUS ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which affirmed the right of states to enact nondiscrimination laws, was decided on a case involving a small business. Those who work against LGBTQ rights are quick to argue that the enactment of anti-discrimination laws threatens small businesses and the rights of small business owners.
Much like the power of having an individual rabbi or pastor speak out against discrimination, a small business owner who speaks to counter the argument that such laws hurt them can actually move the conversation in extremely powerful ways. The majority of us work for small businesses, and small business owners are often the ones who have personal relationships with lawmakers at all levels of government. When small business owners stand up for equality, they are not only asserting the tradition of serving the public, but also taking a stand for their own employees, customers and the diverse communities in which they do business.
That is why OUT Georgia Business Alliance is supporting Georgia Equality’s call for businesses to sign the Local Business Owner’s Pledge on the Georgia Equality website. Some 300 small business owners throughout Georgia have already signed this pledge to support nondiscrimination laws and ordinances in Georgia.
Business owners of all sizes are encouraged to visit georgiaequality.org/business to sign the pledge and to learn more about efforts to ensure that LGBTQ Georgians and others have the legal protections that we all deserve.