Fighting At the Front Line of Equality

Chai Feldblum began her service as a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in April 2010 and made history as the first openly lesbian Commissioner of the EEOC. During Commissioner Feldbum’s service, she has been instrumental in advocating for the civil rights issues of employees who have been discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity along with countless other causes.

“People may be surprised by how much [the EEOC does],” Commissioner Feldblum explains. “We have 53 offices across the country; we deal with about 90,000 charges a year.” The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against job applicants or employees. Feldblum and her associates cover discrimination charges based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and gender identity and sexual orientation.

“The EEOC is a small, but mighty, tiger fighting for employment civil rights for everyone in this country.”

“I’m so proud of the work I’ve done over the past six years in strategic planning to focus the agency’s efforts, given our limited resources.” The EEOC works against employment discrimination by filing lawsuits in federal cases, explaining how the law works through regulations and guidance, educating employers and employees about the law. They also issue decisions on complaints from federal employees and applicants and engage in data collection and research.

“This is not glamorous work,” she explains, “but it is essential to helping people – including the over 3,000 LGBT people who have come to the EEOC over the past three years with claims of discrimination.”

It’s a hot-button issue in 2016 with the increase in media attention to transgender restroom access in public spaces. Earlier this year in the case of Virginia high school junior Gavin Grimm, a US Court of Appeals found that the school board’s mandate that Gavin use “alternate private” restroom facilities was in violation of Title IX, a federal law against sex discrimination in education. Though it was later contested by a higher court and Gavin is still fighting for his rights, this initial ruling marked the first federal decision based on Title IX and was largely thanks to the work of Feldblum and her associates at the EEOC.

According to Feldblum, the fight for LGBT employment anti-discrimination is nothing new. Since her appointment, “The EEOC has taken the lead in getting rid of the “gay exception” to sex discrimination law that the courts created decades ago.”

The Commission issued a decision ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is the federal protection against sex discrimination in employment, should also protect LGBT people. “Indeed, if Title VII had been properly interpreted right after passage, LGBT people would have had anti-discrimination protection for the past 50 years,” she concedes.

As a disability rights activist, Commissioner Feldblum played a leading role in helping to draft and negotiate the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. She has also worked to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and was one of the drafters of the original Employment Nondiscrimination Act when it was introduced in 1993.

“I continued working on the bill for years while I was a Georgetown Law professor.  I was also active in the effort to amend ENDA to include protection for transgender people. The biggest hurdle to workplace equality in those early years was getting Members of Congress comfortable with the fact that they could support LGB (and then T) rights without worrying about being voted out of office.  While a majority of the public was supportive of employment rights for LGB people (the polling asked only about LGB protection initially), that did not mean that we could get a majority in Congress to support us.”

In her career, Feldblum has diligently ventured to work in a bipartisan fashion, not only with the other Democratic Commissioners but with the Republican Commissioners as well. “There are still hurdles to getting the Equality Act passed, but we have come so far in terms of public support that I do believe we can get that bill enacted”

“I think the challenge now is figuring out the best way to align the Equality Act, which appropriately covers more than just employment, with our efforts to protect LGBT people under existing sex discrimination law.” In cases like Gavin Grimm, courts are still able to rule that sexual orientation discrimination is not a form of sex discrimination despite agreeing with the EEOC’s logic. “The main reason the court gave was that it couldn’t be covered under Title VII,  because otherwise why would Congress  be introducing bills like ENDA and the Equality Act?”

“I think we can explain why pushing for an explicit law, like the Equality Act, is not inconsistent with our legal argument that LGBT people are protected under existing law.” Thanks to Feldblum we have seen an incredible amount of progress in the last six years but she knows just how much work there still is to be done. “If the Supreme Court agrees with the EEOC and rules that LGBT people are protected under existing sex discrimination law before [the Equality Act becomes law], we can throw our party then.”

As the first openly LGBT person to serve on the EEOC, Feldblum remarks that “many LGBT employees at the EEOC have told me that it made a huge difference in the workplace for them to have an out lesbian Commissioner. I think it’s particularly important for high-level people in an organization to be out, even if they haven’t been out earlier in their careers.” As she continues her work on the Commission, her best advice for an LGBT person looking to be out in their career is just to “be out and proud! Of course every situation is different and every person has to make his or her own choice. But I think most people are pleasantly surprised with the positive response they get from co-workers and employers when they do come out.”