The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision today in Bostock v. Clayton County, declaring that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees against workplace discrimination, is being hailed by LGBTQ leaders and activists in Louisiana as a massive victory in their decades-long struggle for civil rights and equal protection under the law and as a major defeat for Louisiana state Attorney General Jeff Landry.
“For over 30 years, LGBTQ Louisianans have gone to our state lawmakers and asked that they recognize our humanity, affirm our dignity, and protect our rights as equal citizens under the law. Generations of us have opened our hearts and shared with them our pain and trauma, our families and our love for each other, and our faith in our neighbors, our God, and the LSU Tigers,” Dylan Waguespack, President of the Board of Directors of Louisiana Trans Advocates, told the Bayou Brief. “The Louisiana State Legislature has not yet delivered on our state’s promise of Union, Justice, and Confidence, but for the tens of thousands of Louisianans who are LGBTQ, the wait is over. There is still work ahead of us to achieve full lived equality for all, and that work begins tomorrow. Today, we celebrate.”
According to a November 2015 study by the Williams Institute, Louisiana is home to over 117,000 LGBTQ adults, 88,400 of whom are in the workforce. A separate study by the Human Rights Campaign revealed that 47% of LGBTQ adults have experienced workplace discrimination, and another report by the Pew Institute found that 21% of LGBTQ respondents “had been treated unfairly in hiring, pay, or promotions.”
Until now, Louisiana had been one of 28 states in which an employee could be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Two Louisiana cities, Shreveport and New Orleans, enacted local ordinances prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; together, the two cities comprise 13% of the state’s population.
“I’m ecstatic the court upheld protections for the LGBTQ community and specifically recognizes people of transgender experience,” said Dorian-gray Alexander, a prominent HIV activist in New Orleans. “In Louisiana, these marginalized groups bear the burden of homelessness, HIV, and health disparities, especially transgender women of color.”
Since he took office in 2016, state Attorney General Landry, a staunch Republican and a former one-term Congressman, has aggressively fought against the LGBTQ community. During his first year on the job, Landry sued Gov. John Bel Edwards in order to prevent the enforcement of an Executive Order that would have prohibited the state from contracting with businesses that discriminated against LGBTQ employees.
The order was struck down, first by 19th Judicial District Court Judge Todd Hernandez of Baton Rouge and then by a three judge panel that included Toni Higginbotham of Baton Rouge, Allison H. Penzato of Mandeville, and Guy Holdridge of Gonzalez. All of four of the judges are Republicans. The Louisiana state Supreme Court affirmed the decision on appeal.
“I believe he (Landry) is on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of history on this issue,” Edwards said at the time. Today, he issued another statement:
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling confirms what we have long known: prejudice and discrimination on any basis, including sexual orientation and gender identity, are not Louisiana values and should never be tolerated,” Gov. Edwards said. “When I issued the non-discrimination executive order in 2016, I knew that we were on the right side of history, and today’s historic decision affirms that belief. Sex-based discrimination has no place in our great state, much less in places of employment. Louisiana’s diversity of people and ideas makes us stronger and better. Every citizen deserves the opportunity to be successful and thrive.”
Landry had specifically urged the Supreme Court to reject providing protections to transgender employees through Title VII, signing onto an amicus brief filed in November of 2018.
“Louisianians still remember that Landry felt so strongly that employers should be able to discriminate against and harass LGBTQ+ employees that he sued our governor to prevent him from protecting state workers and contractors,” Stephen Handwerk, the Executive Director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, told the Bayou Brief. “Clearly, this court ruling makes that case moot and marks another loss for the Attorney General and his bigotry. Regardless of Landry’s obstruction, progress finds a way. This historic decision is one step forward towards a state and nation that is fair and safe for all.”
Today’s 6-3 ruling, which was authored by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the Court’s four reliably liberal members, not only applies nationwide; it’s also more expansive than the Executive Order challenged by Landry.
“Today’s ruling proves true the words of Gov. John Bel Edwards. Our attorney general, Jeff Landry, was on ‘the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the law,'” said Waguespack. “As the state’s lead attorney, he now shares in our collective responsibility to ensure that those who discriminate against LGBTQ people are held accountable, and we hope that he will take this responsibility seriously.”
“With today’s Supreme Court ruling, Jeff Landry once again finds himself on the wrong side of history,” said Handwerk, who has spent more than 25 years advocating for LGBTQ rights in Louisiana. “As much as this ruling is an indictment against Jeff Landry, it is a vindication for our governor.”
Although Landry’s position on LGBTQ rights are out-of-touch with the mainstream (and even with two of the Supreme Court’s conservative Justices, including Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump), he is far from the only elected official in Louisiana who has publicly opposed workforce discrimination protections for LGBTQ employees.
When Landry challenged Edwards’s order in 2016, 17 Republican state legislators signed a letter supporting Landry’s actions, including current Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, current U.S. Congressman Mike Johnson, and current State Treasurer John Schroder. Those members were:
Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City (and now a member of Congress)
Beryl Amedee, R-Gray
Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall
Stuart J. Bishop, R-Lafayette
Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice
Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge
Julie Emerson, R-Carencro
Lance Harris, R-Alexandria
Cameron Henry, R-Metairie
Paul Hollis, R-Covington
Dodie Horton, R-Haughton
Frank Howard, R-Many
Jack MacFarland, R-Jonesboro
Blake Miguez, R-Erath
Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales (now Speaker of the state House of Representatives)
Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport
John M. Schroder, R-Covington (now Louisiana State Treasurer)
Of the 17 members, only one, Frank Howard of Many, is no longer in elected office.
Vincenzo Pasquantonio, the former Director of the City of New Orleans’s Office of Human Rights and Equity who currently serves on the National Steering Committee for the U.S. Human Rights Cities Alliance, sees an irony in the Court’s decision and Landry’s legal arguments.
“Today, the Supreme Court made the case that a textualist interpretation of this law requires expanding protections to the LGBTQ+ community. Yet the state Attorney General, a self-described textualist, did not apply his own legal philosophy in this case, seemingly for political reasons,” Pasquantonio told the Bayou Brief. “This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that his office still oversees the bulk of our state’s housing discrimination complaints. We must be assured that our officials, particularly our Attorney General, will work to protect residents to the maximum extent possible, regardless of politics.”
In 1992, former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards was the first to sign an Executive Order prohibiting the state from contracting with businesses who discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation, an order that was subsequently rescinded by his successor, Mike Foster. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco reinstated the order after she took office in 2004, but it was again rescinded by her Republican successor, Bobby Jindal.
The Executive Order signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards sought to extend protections to transgender employees as well.
In 1993, then-state Rep. Troy A. Carter (who later became a member of the New Orleans City Council and is now a member of the state Senate) and then-state Sen. Marc Morial (who later became Mayor of New Orleans and who currently leads the Urban League) introduced a pair of bills, HB 1013 and SB 918, that would have expanded workplace protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Both bills sailed through their respective committees, and both received the support of prominent clergymen. “I see it as an extension of the 1973 state Constitution,” Rev. James Stovall said at the time. “This is legislation to provide justice for all people in our society.”
Both were subsequently killed in a House floor vote after what was described at the time as a “bizarre and explicit debate.” At one point, then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins argued that the legislation would have allowed “homosexuals to spread AIDS in the workplace,” according to the Shreveport Times.
Importantly, although the bills were similar, only Carter’s can be considered a true Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) proposal. (Morial had been forced to amend his legislation and carve out exemptions for religious and educational institutions in order to advance his bill out of committee).
Notably, in 1997, state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson, then state Rep. Karen Carter, became the first Louisiana elected official to propose an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that included protections for transgender employees, HB 845. The bill failed in the House Labor Committee, three to six. 75 people signed cards in opposition to the bill; only two signed cards in support.
Current U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise was one of the six members who voted against Carter’s proposed legislation.
Although Karen Carter’s bill was defeated, during the same legislative session, Louisiana became the first state in the Deep South to extend hate crimes protections to include sexual orientation.
That year, Troy Carter and Marc Morial would also made history together in New Orleans, passing and enacting the state’s first ordinance recognizing domestic partnerships.
Troy Carter is back in the state legislature—this time as a state Senator, where he continues to champion legislation to advance LGBTQ rights. Three years ago, Carter introduced SB 155, an ENDA proposal that included protections for transgender employees.
When the bill was heard by the Senate Labor Committee, Dylan Waguespack—memorably and courageously—came out as transgender for the first time in public.
“Today is a incredible victory for all of America,” state Sen. Carter told the Bayou Brief. “While it is obviously more specific for our friends in the LGBTQ community, it is really a victory for all of humankind, because it really speaks to the end of an era of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance. Now, for the first time in history, LGBTQ employees have an opportunity for due process if they are the victim of workplace discrimination. People no longer have to be afraid of who they are for fear of losing their job.”
Carter then added: “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Adrienne Critcher of PACE (People Acting for Change and Equality), an advocacy organization based in Shreveport, while praising the Court’s decision, also struck a similar note of caution.
“It’s time for the U.S. Congress to catch up with Shreveport, and pass comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation for LGBT people,” Critcher wrote in a press release this afternoon. “While the Supreme Court ruling today protects LGBT people from workplace discrimination, they still face discrimination in other areas of life in the public square. That is why it is important for the U.S. Senate to join the House in passing the Equality Act which gives LGBT people the widespread protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations supported by 70% of Americans.”
Chad Youngblood spent 14 years as a civil rights lawyer in New Orleans. Today, he is a mediator in Greenville, South Carolina.
“Many of my first cases as an attorney in Louisiana dealt with LGBTQ employment discrimination,” Youngblood told the Bayou Brief. “Unfortunately, I lost all those cases. I was a pro bono attorney for AIDSLaw Louisiana. I won an award for my work and received a mention by the Louisiana State Bar Association, both of which were honors I appreciate to this day. However, the majority opinion today was validation—almost verbatim— of the arguments I made in court all those years ago. I was often questioned by judges, peers, and family as to why I’d battle such windmills. Today, that question was answered. Never give up. Never give up on what is right.”