Beyond Tolerance: Union Protections for LGBTQ Workers and Their Rights

“l don’t want you to celebrate my diversity; I want you to recognize my rights in the workplace. Good fences make good neighbors, and good collective bargaining agreements make good workplaces.” That was longtime AFGE activist Carolyn Federoff at the bargaining table in 2013 passionately defending the protections workers fought for in the late 1980s. Her words expressed the fundamental truth that a worker is a worker, and a union’s job is to protect them all – regardless of lifestyle, beliefs, or manner of self-identifying.

Thanks to Federoff’s efforts and those of activists like her, labor unions continue to play a crucial, yet often overlooked, role in safeguarding the workplace rights of the LGBTQ community. Well before states and the federal government enacted laws to prohibit discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, unions tirelessly negotiated equitable terms in their contracts. These negotiated practices have paved the way for broader initiatives aimed at achieving societal and workplace equality, which many Americans now consider fundamental: 8 in 10 Americans favor laws that would protect LGBTQ+ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.

The journey of LGBTQ individuals within organized labor has been a testament to the power of the collective when the values of resilience, inclusivity, and equality are motivating their efforts.

A brave and long-standing battle

The history of LGBTQ protections in unions is one of gradual change, punctuated by watershed moments that have led to more inclusive policies. The landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which decriminalized same-sex relations, represented a major turning point for LGBTQ rights. This legal triumph sent ripples through the labor movement, inspiring unions to take a more proactive stance in protecting LGBTQ workers.

In the following years, a slew of legislative and policy changes further solidified LGBTQ protections in unions. The nondiscrimination clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, was interpreted to include LGBTQ individuals. The Obama Administration’s executive orders further bolstered these protections, making it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ employees. These legal changes reverberated within unions, creating an atmosphere of greater inclusivity and security for LGBTQ workers.

Certain protections that were firmly established during the Obama Administration saw a reversal toward the end of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, however. During his presidency, Trump implemented regulations that allowed grant recipients from the Department of Health and Human Services to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals, resulting in adverse effects on essential services like foster care and adoption, marriage, refugee assistance, and HIV prevention.

This one step forward, two steps back dynamic is not unfamiliar to unions, of course. From the earliest stages of its conception, the labor movement in the United States has been met with resistance from corporate interests, political and employer opposition, and anti-union legislation. And although President Joe Biden is holding good to his promise to work closely with allies and governments who are aligned with providing protections for LGBTQ workers, many roadblocks persist on the path to equality.

Persistent barriers to equality

Although significant progress has been made in both policy and perception regarding worker equality, barriers still impede LGBTQ workers’ full and equal participation in the workforce. Some current challenges include:

Inconsistent state laws

Recently 417 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced across 13 states, leading many mental health professionals to worry about how these discriminatory laws will impact queer youth, workplace safety, and community efforts. LGBTQ rights can vary significantly from state to state. For example, the state of Florida passed the Parental Rights in Education law in 2022, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. This law has been expanded since its passing, and now extends the ban on discussion of any orientation other than heterosexual all the way up to 12th grade. Similar curriculum restrictions have been passed in Alabama, Georgia, and South Dakota.

Workplace discrimination

Over 8 million workers in the US identify as LGBTQ+. On his inaugural day as president, Joe Biden issued an executive directive instructing all federal agencies that have anti-sex discrimination protections to broaden their interpretation of these statutes to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. “Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes,” he said in the order. Although it a good step in the right direction, many American workers who identify as LGBTQ+ report experiencing discrimination at work. A recent comprehensive study conducted by CAP revealed that more than 1 in 3 LGBTQ adults reported experiencing some form of discrimination in the year prior, while fewer than 1 in 5 non-LGBTQ individuals did so.

Healthcare disparities

Because of factors such as limited access to health insurance, elevated stress levels stemming from systematic harassment and discrimination, and a lack of cultural sensitivity within the healthcare system, the LGBTQ+ community faces an increased susceptibility to conditions like cancer, mental health issues, and various diseases.

LGBTQ individuals face multiple challenges in obtaining health insurance. As described above, they frequently encounter persistent workplace discrimination and harassment, which can result in job loss, resignation, or difficulties in securing employment. Because most people rely on their employer for health insurance, these disruptions in employment can lead to gaps in insurance coverage. Moreover, many workplaces do not extend health insurance benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees. Given the substantial expenses associated with purchasing individual health insurance and the administrative obstacles to obtaining coverage, many LGBTQ individuals find themselves without insurance. Studies show that if all employers extended domestic partner benefits, the uninsured rates among same-sex and different-sex unmarried couples could potentially decrease by as much as 43 percent.

It’s also important to note that the majority of insurance plans do not encompass the specific healthcare needs of LGBT individuals. Transgender individuals, for example, often encounter difficulties accessing even basic preventive and primary care as a result of insurance exclusions. Similarly, because discriminatory healthcare practices deter LGBTQ individuals from seeking preventive treatment or result in them receiving subpar care, they are more prone to conditions such as HIV/AIDS or certain cancers. Insurance companies frequently classify these ailments as pre-existing conditions, rendering affected individuals either ineligible for coverage or subject to exorbitant rates in the non-group insurance market.

LGBTQ rights and labor rights are intrinsically linked

Today Americans are free to marry who they love, but in many states they can still be fired because of whom they wed — unless they are covered by the safeguard of a union agreement.

The AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work, a constituency group, remains at the forefront of advocating for the dignity of LGBTQ employees. The protections enshrined in various union contracts throughout the years, ranging from partner benefits to non-discrimination policies to healthcare provisions, have achieved progress that might have otherwise been unattainable.

Ultimately, the interconnectedness of LGBTQ rights and labor rights is rooted in the broader struggle for social justice, respect, and fairness for all. Recognizing and supporting the rights of LGBTQ individuals in the workplace is not only a moral imperative but also a fundamental aspect of achieving equality and justice within the broader context of labor rights and civil rights.