Studies show improvement, but as recent Texas case illustrates, issues remain
Izza Lopez was excited about her new job at Houston-based medical company River Oaks Imaging and Diagnostic. Her interview had gone great, and they told her that she had the position. All she had to do now was fill out the standard paperwork.
That’s when it all went wrong.
Upon finding out that Izza was a transgender woman, the company refused to hire her, saying that she misrepresented herself as female.
“It was the most horrible feeling in the world to be denied an opportunity not because I wasn’t qualified but because I didn’t conform to what they believed I should be,” Lopez said.
According to two new studies this month, Izza is not alone. Both surveys estimated that about 28 percent of LGBT workers have been harassed in the workplace. The study by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder.com goes further, saying that nearly half of that 28 percent describe the discrimination as severe.
The leading type of harassment in both studies was not receiving credit for one’s work. Following that was being passed up for a promotion because of sexual orientation. The third leading type of discrimination differed between the two studies.
In the Harris Interactive survey it was being talked about behind their backs by co-workers.
In the study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, the third leading form of discrimination was being paid less than heterosexual workers.
The study found that gay men consistently earn 10 to 32 percent less than their similarly qualified straight counterparts. Differences in pay for lesbians and heterosexual women were less clear, but it was noted that they still earn less on average than men.
While these surveys might seem discouraging, they actually show that discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace is down 11 percent from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s 2005 Workplace Fairness Survey.
Ken Upton, the attorney for the South Central regional office of Lambda Legal, is excited to watch the numbers go down.
“We are seeing lots of improvement, and I think two factors are contributing to that,” he said. “First public opinion has come a long way. We now work with people who are gay and lesbian openly and when we put faces on them, it’s not such a scary thing. We actually like them.”
He may be on to something. A gallup poll this spring shows that 89 percent of people thought that sexual orientation had no effect on a person’s ability to do a job.
Upton said the second contributor to decreased discrimination is that companies are starting to see that fair employment practices lead to happier, more productive employees, which is good for the bottom line.
But Rob Wiley, the chairman of the National Employment Lawyers Association committee on sexual orientation and gender identification, says that the LGBT community should start celebrating just yet.
“We’ve come a long way, but the legal remedies for workplace discrimination are still not solid,” he said. “They depend entirely on where you live. And in Texas, you have very little recourse you can use.”
The Lone Star State is one of 32 states nationwide that have no statewide law providing express protection against sexual orientation discrimination.
“The real reality for a lot of gays and lesbians is that the only option you really have in a case of unbearable discrimination is to find a new job,” Wiley said.
But he did point out that the city of Dallas has an ordinance that prevents sexual orientation discrimination. Complaints are filed and investigated through the Fair Housing Office, but the maximum fee a company can receive if discrimination is found is $500.
But Wiley says not to give up hope. If discrimination falls in certain categories, there may be another way to bring a lawsuit.
First, if the person is being discriminated against because they have HIV, there is a federal protection. If someone is being sexual harassed there is protection. And if someone is being discriminated against because they don’t match typical gender roles, as is the case for Lopez, there is national protection.
Lopez enlisted Lambda Legal to file suit against the company in federal court in December. Her case is still open, but Upton, who represented her as counsel, is thrilled she sought legal recourse.
“It’s people like Izza who are to thank for decreased numbers,” he said. “Those who have the courage to step up and put their names and faces in the spotlight of the legal system are our best hopes at equality in the workplace and every other place in life.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 29, 2007.