January 26, 2022

LGBTQ Center seeks allies

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortland LGBTQ Resource Center Program Coordinator Courtney Stafford, shown walking Tuesday on Main Street, has been sending petitions to local businesses asking them to sign a pledge to maintain a safe work environment for employees, regardless of sexual orientation.

The Cortland LGBTQ Center is asking businesses to stand with the LGBT community against discrimination, in light of a U.S. Justice Department opinion that anti-discrimination laws don’t apply to people who are gay or transgender.

The Department of Justice filed an amicus brief July 27, arguing as a friend of the court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was filed in a discrimination case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals involving Donald Zarda, a sky diver who was fired from his company Altitude Express, which he later sued, claiming it had violated Title VII because he is gay.

The problem, says Courtney Stafford, program coordinator at the Cortland LGBTQ Center, is that the law has traditionally been interpreted by courts to extend to protections for sexual orientation and the federal brief seeks to strip that ability from the courts.

“As of now title VII has in the past been interpreted to cover against sexual discrimination,” Stafford said. “I, as a woman who loves a woman, you can’t discriminate against me to do that because if I was a man you would not. … Judges have interpreted it and have gone both ways but it was always there as an option,” Stafford said.

Removing that protection would be particularly dangerous for transgender people, who are not covered by other laws like the SONDA Act, a state law that protects against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, she said.

Employer David McNeil of McNeil Development Co., based on Main Street in Cortland, said putting the complexities of the law aside, it does not change how he views the hiring process.

“I’ve never had to walk the letter of the law but if someone walks in the door, they get a job based on their skill,” McNeil said. “We would never discriminate based on sexual orientation. We would never discriminate.”

McNeil had not yet seen the pledge from the center, but said he would be very interested in it.

Even if protections remain in place, Stafford said, the fact they were threatened is huge. She said the brief was filed on the same day President Donald Trump tweeted about transgender people not being allowed in the military; so, she said, it was one attack after another.

“The fact that they were so threatened and so in the spotlight and the question of whether or not they were being supported by the government does lasting damage to somebody,” she said.

The center has called for pledges from area businesses to affirm their commitment to protecting employees regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“So the reason we sent out the pledges is to allow businesses a voice to say that regardless of the federal protections, we care about and are going to support our LGBTQ employees and allow Cortland to become a safe space and not give in to the toxic tension,” Stafford said.