Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Your Rights

Many state and local laws protect gay and lesbian workers from discrimination in the workplace.

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Sexual orientation discrimination includes being treated differently or harassed because of your real or perceived sexual orientation -- whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. This type of discrimination may be illegal in your workplace, depending on where you work.

Federal Law

Although federal laws protect people from workplace discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability, there is no federal law that specifically outlaws workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the private sector. (Federal government workers are protected from such discrimination.) Attempts to pass federal legislation that would outlaw sexual orientation discrimination in private workplaces have been unsuccessful to date, although more members of Congress support such a bill each year.

State Laws

There is more hope at the state level. Almost half the states and the District of Columbia have laws that currently prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in both public and private jobs: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In addition, a few states have laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in public workplaces only.

Local Laws

If you are gay or lesbian and your state does not have a law that protects you from workplace discrimination, you may still be protected by city and county ordinances. Many cities and counties prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in at least some workplaces.

To find out exactly what kind of protection your city, county, and/or state provides to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, you can visit the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund website at www.lambdalegal.org. Lambda maintains a list of state-by-state antidiscrimination laws, as well as other laws specifically affecting gays and lesbians. If you need additional information, you can contact the Lambda office in your region. There, an intake volunteer will either answer your question or, if you need more help, connect you with a volunteer attorney.

Company Policies

Some enlightened companies have adopted their own policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. These policies prohibit such conduct and often provide disciplinary guidelines for dealing managers who discriminate, up to and including termination of employment.

Other Laws

If no law prohibits sexual orientation discrimination where you work, there may still be hope. Depending on the exact nature of the discrimination, you may be able to sue your employer -- or your coworkers -- under a number of general legal theories, including:

  • intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress
  • harassment
  • assault
  • battery
  • invasion of privacy
  • defamation
  • interference with an employment contract, and
  • wrongful termination.

For more information about your right to be free of workplace discrimination, see Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo)

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