LAVA, the LGBTQIA+ Association of Vanderbilt Alumni, and the Vanderbilt Alumni Association explored the significance of a landmark Supreme Court case that ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an online ’Dores in Dialogue event on June 22. Panelists also focused on the recent proliferation of legislation at the state level targeting the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Moderated by LAVA President Jay Larry, BA’14, JD’17, the event, “A Conversation on Bostock v. Clayton County and the Rise of Anti-LGBTQIA+ Legislation,” included panelists Tyler Bishop, BA’15, a graduate of Stanford Law School and a lawyer involved in Bostock v. Clayton County; Anita J. Jenious, BA’85, director of Vanderbilt’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access; Rob Sánchez Nelson, interim director of LGBTQI+ Life at Vanderbilt; and Matthew P. Shaw, assistant professor of public policy and education, and assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt.
Bostock v. Clayton County and two related cases, Altitude Express, Inc., et al. v. Zarda et al., and R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., all involved an employer allegedly firing an employee because they were gay or transgender. Gerald Bostock, a longtime child welfare advocate for Clayton County, Georgia, was fired after community members learned he participated in a gay softball league. Donald Zarda was a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express in Long Island, New York, and was fired days after he mentioned that he was gay. Aimee Stephens was a transgender employee at R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan, who was fired after she told her employer her plans to “live and work full-time as a woman.”
The Supreme Court heard arguments for all three cases in October 2019. In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Neil Gorsuch in June 2020, the court ruled in favor of Bostock and held that Title VII protects gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination.
Tyler Bishop worked with Stanford law professor Pamela Carlin on the Altitude Express v. Zarda case with her Supreme Court litigation clinic. Bishop and his colleagues helped prepare the legal arguments Carlin presented before the Supreme Court. “We were very thrilled with it [the outcome] and we think that we’ll have great implications going forward for the interpretation of similar language elsewhere,” Bishop said.
Bishop also explained how working on the case affected him on a personal level. “As I came to terms with my own sexuality, I had a lot of anxieties, as many young people do, about how that would play out throughout my life,” he said. “So, I’m really privileged to have had the opportunity so young in my career to have worked on an issue that I’m so personally passionate about.”
Matthew Shaw, who joined Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of human and educational development in 2016, is a sociologist of law whose research focuses on educational institutions and the communities, students and educators who engage with them.
Shaw explained that the Supreme Court is often interested in hearing cases like Bostock that come from the Sixth Circuit because it, “tends to map very strongly on the demographics of the country.” He also explained that Justice Gorsuch, “raised the empirical question, ‘Is it possible to discriminate against gay people or transgender persons without discriminating because of sex?’—to use the Title VII language—and the answer of course was no.”
Anita Jenious, director of Vanderbilt’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, described the progress Vanderbilt has made over the years in becoming more inclusive and equitable. “It has been wonderful to just see the evolution of the LGBTQIA community at Vanderbilt and the policies and procedures, and now ultimately the laws, that certainly protect this community.
“I like to think that we advocate for all groups but particularly those groups who have historically been disenfranchised, who have been marginalized, who have been treated differently because of their status in a particular category,” Jenious added. “… We hope to continue working with our partners in this regard to make sure that Vanderbilt is a community that is inclusive and welcoming for everybody.”
Rob Sánchez Nelson described how their work at LGBTQI+ Life at Vanderbilt works to prepare students to enter the workforce and noted that one of the main concerns they hear from students is how to identify companies that are LGBTQI+ friendly. They also noted that students want to know who to turn to when they are discriminated against in the workplace.
“It’s a balance of how to instill hope, how to help them find what they’re passionate about, that will carry them through their professional life, but also prepare them so that they’re educated and know what they may experience going out into the workforce,” Nelson said.
Nelson also described the harmful impacts of recent anti-LGBTQI+ legislation on students. “There’s already enough that goes into deciding to fully express your gender identity and to share with people who you truly are,” they said. “Then to also hear that the state you live in is trying to make it harder for you to do regular everyday things, and that essentially your identity and your validity as a human being [are] being discussed and legislated against on a regular basis in this state … that has direct mental health implications for anybody in the LGBTQI+ community.”
The panelists concluded by emphasizing the importance of activism and voting. They urged the Vanderbilt community to pay attention not only to federal issues, but also local and state legislation impacting civil rights.