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Gay and Lesbian Rights / Sexual Orientation Discrimination

The U.S. and many state governments have robust protections against discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, or sex. However, the civil rights of gay and lesbian citizens are in a state of flux. Gay and lesbian individuals are protected by a patchwork of federal, state, and corporate rules and regulations. This article reviews the kinds of protections that are currently available. However, it's important to remember that these rights are constantly changing. Be sure to check back here for updates, or contact a local attorney to get the most up-to-date information.

Federal Protections

As a general rule, federal law doesn't protect individuals from sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing, lending, education, or in any other area. There are, however, certain exceptions to this rule including:

  • Hate Crimes
  • Employment Discrimination- EEOC
  • Miscellaneous Policies
  • Same-Sex Marriage

Hate Crimes

One of those exceptions deals with hate crimes. Federal law protects gay and lesbian individuals against hate crimes motivated by animosity over their sexual orientation. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act (The Matthew Shepard Act), signed into law in 2009, gives violent offenders who target gay and lesbian people higher penalties than they would otherwise receive.

Employment Discrimination- EEOC

Secondly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may enforce the rights of gay and lesbian employees if the discrimination at issue was on the basis of sex. For example, if a woman faces a hostile work environment because she cuts her hair short, refuses to wear a skirt and heels, and is generally not "effeminate" enough, she may file a complaint with the EEOC. Sex stereotyping is considered sex discrimination which the EEOC may investigate. While not every instance of sex stereotyping relates to a gay or lesbian employee, many employees must endure this kind of discrimination and the EEOC can provide a powerful protection.

Miscellaneous Policies

In addition, the President may issue policies that have a positive effect for gay and lesbian citizens. It's generally left to the agencies in the executive branch to execute and enforce these policies. For example, the Obama administration ordered that all hospitals which accept Medicare and Medicaid payments must allow same-sex partners of patients to visit and make medical decisions for their loved ones.

Same-Sex Marriage

Finally, the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages, which means that married gay and lesbian couples enjoy all of the same privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. On June 26, 2015, The U.S. Supreme Court held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause. The landmark decision in Obergfell v. Hodges overturned all state laws that banned same sex marriage, thereby legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states and U.S. territories except American Samoa.

State Protections

Each state is free to make its own laws regarding its gay and lesbian residents. Be sure to check the laws in your state to determine what protections you have. The laws that states pass can affect the following legal areas:

Protections by Private Employers

Employers may grant higher protections to their gay and lesbian employees even when not required to do so by state law. Therefore, if you have experienced harassment or discrimination on the job, the first place to check is your employer's internal discrimination policies. The human resources department should make this information available to you.

Talk to an Attorney about Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Have you suffered sexual orientation discrimination? Depending on your situation, federal law may or may not protect you, but state laws could apply. Civil rights law concerning sexual orientation discrimination can be complex regarding coverage. An attorney experienced in discrimination issues can help you understand your rights.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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