New York City employment discrimination laws include express prohibitions against discrimination because of gender identity or gender expression. At the federal level, whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains similar protections depends on where the claim arises. Prior to 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) held that gender identity is covered by Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions. It filed suit in 2015 on behalf of a transgender woman alleging gender identity discrimination. United States v. Southeastern Okla. State Univ., No. 5:15-cv-00324, complaint (W.D. Okla., Mar. 30, 2015). The following year, officials from multiple states sued the federal government over certain policies on transgender rights. State of Texas, et al. v. United States, et al., No. 7:16-cv-00054, complaint (N.D. Tex., May 25, 2016). The two cases became intertwined as the issue of transgender rights gained attention in 2017.
Some courts have held that gender identity discrimination falls under Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination, finding it to be “because of sex,” as defined by the statute. They often cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that “sex stereotyping” constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII. Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). Gender identity discrimination, the argument goes, is sex discrimination because an individual does not conform to stereotypes about a particular gender. Other courts have held that, absent express inclusion of gender identity as a protected category, using those or similar words, it is not covered by the statute.
The DOJ filed suit on behalf of a complainant who began working at an Oklahoma university in 2004, when she “presented as a man and went by a traditionally male name.” Southeastern, complaint at 4. She notified the university of her intent to transition to a female identity in 2007. She alleged that, once this process began, and after it was complete, her employer treated her differently, and she was ultimately denied tenure because of her gender identity. The court ruled in July 2015 that the complainant is part of a protected class because of “sex stereotyping based on a person’s gender non-conforming behavior.” Southeastern, mem. op. at 5 (Jul. 10, 2015). A jury entered a verdict in the complainant’s favor in late 2017 and awarded her $1.165 million in damages.