At the start of its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in three cases to determine whether LGBTQ people can be fired from their jobs due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, as well as race, color, national origin and religion, but the Trump administration claims the law does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The cases mark the first time the Supreme Court will rule on LGBTQ rights since conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy, who wrote many of the court’s major LGBTQ rights rulings. We speak with Laverne Cox, a longtime trans rights activist and award-winning transgender actress best known for her role on the show “Orange Is the New Black,” and Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. His work includes impact litigation, as well as legislative and administrative advocacy, on behalf of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV across the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: The Supreme Court is starting a new term today in Washington, D.C. The court will be hearing major cases this year involving reproductive rights, immigration, the Second Amendment and LGBTQ rights.
On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in three cases to determine whether LGBTQ people can be fired from their jobs due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s been described as, quote, “the most important case directly addressing LGBTQ people ever to reach the United States Supreme Court.” Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, as well as race, color, national origin and religion. But the Trump administration claims the law does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One of the cases centers on a transgender woman from Michigan named Aimee Stephens, who was fired from her job at a funeral home in 2013.
AIMEE STEPHENS: When I was fired, it made me mad, to say the least. I was hurt that I was being treated that way after the commitment and service that I had been providing. And that’s when it finally hit home that we weren’t treated the same as everybody else, and that it was time that somebody stood up and said enough is enough.
AMY GOODMAN: The cases mark the first time the Supreme Court will rule on LGBTQ rights since conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy, who had written many of the court’s major LGBTQ rights rulings.
We are joined right now by two guests. Laverne Cox is with us, award-winning transgender actress, longtime trans rights activist, best known for her role of Sophia Burset on the show Orange Is the New Black. In 2014, she became the first transgender person on the cover of Time magazine and the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in an acting category. We’re also joined by Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. His work includes impact litigation, as well as legislative and administrative advocacy, on behalf of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV across the United States.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Tuesday is a very significant day in the Supreme Court. Laverne Cox, talk about the cases that are before the High Court.
LAVERNE COX: Well, it’s the first time the Supreme Court will hear any case involving transgender rights, transgender civil rights, with Aimee Stephens’ case, and there’s two other cases of where two gay men were also fired from their jobs simply for being who they are. This is the first time the court will hear cases about whether or not Title VII applies to the LGBTQ+ community.
This has huge ramifications for us, because we know that this administration has been trying to take transgender people specifically, but the LGBTQ community in general, out of the realm of protections — the leaked memo that we all remember from a year ago, where they want to change the definition of “sex” so that trans folks wouldn’t have any recourse under the law; the protests that ensued after that; the new directive from HHS and from HUD, where they want to discriminate against us in housing and in healthcare. So, this is really huge, not just for the LGBTQ+ community, but for also any worker who might not conform to someone else’s idea of how they should express their gender.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you did something very unusual at the Emmys. Your guest, your plus one, was one Chase Strangio.
LAVERNE COX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to go to — well, describe the scene and why you decided to do this.
LAVERNE COX: Well, I noticed that not a lot of people were talking about this case. I think it’s the most consequential civil rights case for LGBTQ rights in my lifetime. No one was really talking about it except Chase and a few other people. And I thought, “What can I do?” And so, I was nominated for my third Emmy this year and was going to be going to the Emmys, and I knew that would be a platform where a lot of people would be paying attention. And so, I was like, “Well, we should take Chase, and we should talk about this case on the red carpet.” My status got the idea of making a clutch that said “Title VII, October 8th, Supreme Court.” Edie Parker designed it. And we went, and we went with a mission.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re showing the images of that. Let’s hear Chase on the red carpet with Laverne Cox.
CHASE STRANGIO: October 8th, everyone should be aware that the administration is asking the Supreme Court to make it legal to fire workers just because they’re LGBTQ. And this is actually going to transform the lives of LGBTQ people and people who are not LGBTQ, anyone who departs from sex stereotypes, like all the fabulous people here, for example. So we really need to show up October 8th and pay attention, because our lives are really on the line.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Chase Strangio of the ACLU, the plus one with Laverne Cox at the Emmys. Again, as I said earlier, Laverne is the first openly trans actress to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in any acting category. So, use that moment, where the world was watching — that was an interview on E!, Chase. Describe further the significance of this case and the Trump administration’s stance. How has it changed?
CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, so, you know, as Laverne said, tomorrow the Supreme Court is going to be hearing arguments in these three cases, that will absolutely transform the legal landscape for LGBTQ people, and not just LGBTQ people, but all women, in particular, but anyone who departs from sex stereotypes.
And what is really astounding, particularly in Aimee Stephens’ case, is that the case was filed in 2014 by the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That is the agency that enforces Title VII. And that agency brought the case, arguing that when Aimee was fired, it violated Title VII. And so, the case is actually the EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes, the employer that fired Aimee just because she is transgender. And so it went up through the courts in that posture. After the election, the presidential election of 2016, the ACLU intervened on behalf of Aimee, because we were concerned that the agency and the administration would no longer defend the rights of trans people under federal law — and for good reason, because now we are before the Supreme Court, and the Trump administration has changed sides. The United States is siding with the employers, urging the Supreme Court to make a rule for everyone that it is lawful to fire someone just because they are LGBTQ.
And I want people to understand that the arguments they are advancing are so incredibly, like, staggeringly conservative and dangerous, because what they are saying is that we want a world, under Title VII, that goes all the way back to at least pre-1989 in the landmark case of Price Waterhouse, that allows employers to enforce sex stereotypes, as long as they do so against men and women. And so, what I mean by that is the Trump administration and the Alliance Defending Freedom, who is representing Aimee’s employer, really do want a world where a woman could be fired for not being feminine enough, as long as they would fire a man for not being masculine enough. So, imagine you go to work, and you’re a father, and you say, “I need to leave at 5:00 to care for my kids,” and they fire you because they say, “No, men are supposed to be working, and women are supposed to be the primary caretakers of children.” That is the world they want. And so, this is really a radical transformation of sex discrimination law that they’re asking for.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Aimee Stephens, the woman behind the first transgender civil rights case to go before the Supreme Court. Speaking at an ACLU news conference last week, she explained her decision to come out as a transgender woman.
AIMEE STEPHENS: I’ve been living basically two lives: one at home and in public, and one at work. And in the beginning, that wasn’t so bad. But as time goes on and as time progressed, I got to the point that living two lives, being two people, was becoming downright impossible. And I knew that I couldn’t keep going that way. And things came to a head in November of 2012, when I stood in the backyard with a gun to my chest, pondering the question: If I can’t go forward and I can’t go backwards, where does that leave me? And if this is all I have to look forward to, then what’s the point of continuing? And in that hour, going over that and over that in my mind, I chose life, and I realized that I liked me too much to just disappear and go away.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Aimee Stephens, the woman behind the first transgender civil rights case to go before the Supreme Court. Talk about the journey Aimee Stephens’ case took, through the courts until now.
CHASE STRANGIO: So, Aimee Stephens’ case was filed in federal court. She won in the lower court, so the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, as the majority of federal courts have for trans litigants. It has actually been the law, you know, for two decades, in many circuits of the federal judiciary, that firing someone or discriminating against someone because they are transgender is per se sex discrimination under the law, as well as a prohibition on the — as well as a violation of the prohibition on sex stereotypes. So Amy won below. You know, the court said, “No, you cannot fire someone just because they are transgender.” And then it was the employer and the United States that are now before the Supreme Court arguing for a rule that it is in fact lawful to fire someone for being transgender. And we represent Aimee.
I think something that’s incredibly poignant about Aimee’s remarks in the letter she sent her employer is that she was going to be the same person, the same valued employee, and she was living this deeply painful lie. And she needed to be who she was. We only get one chance to live our lives as who we are. And so, she was going to be an even better worker because she wasn’t going to have to hide this core truth of herself. And she has the courage, she comes out, and then she gets fired and has spent the last six years fighting the termination, while she faces no job, lost her healthcare. You know, her health is in decline because this is what happens when you lose your livelihood. And so, hopefully, we can appeal to the court on the simple proposition that Congress wrote a broad law that prohibits sex discrimination, and it covers trans people, as most lower courts have held.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to talk about the issue of violence against trans people and how you think that this links. We are speaking with Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, and actress Laverne Cox. Stay with us.