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Commentary LGBTQ

Attorney General Sessions Just Reminded Me How Easy It Is to Lose My Job for Being Queer

Kat Jercich

Despite federal and court precedence to the contrary, Attorney General Sessions still felt on Wednesday the need to swoop in and let everyone know that, oh, by the way, loving the wrong person means you’re not worthy of holding a job in peace.

By writing this, I’m putting my future employment in jeopardy.

Not at Rewire. I can self-identify as “a huge gay” (bisexual is more accurate, but I love a hyperbole) in staff meetings and “queer and excitable” on Twitter, and no one blinks an eye. I can flag any language used in pieces that seems to venture into trans-exclusive territory, drawing on my own identity not as a justification, but to reinforce how important it is to me that we don’t propagate hateful, violent rhetoric in our publication. I can put my head down on my desk and stare at nothing, listening to my own breathing, when a hateful stranger murders dozens of people, when a sudden house fire kills dozens more.

I’m extraordinarily lucky in this regard.

I also live in Illinois, where employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal. It was the same thing in California, where I grew up and where I held my first job, and in Maryland, where Rewire is headquartered. But if someone in one of the 28 states where that isn’t the case for private employers suddenly got told to skedaddle, they couldn’t know for certain whether it was because they felt safe and affirmed enough around their colleagues to tell them about an enormous, important part of their lives. And if I applied for, and didn’t get, a different job in one of those states, who’s to say it wouldn’t be because my prospective bosses found essays like this one?

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On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reminded me of all that when lawyers from the Justice Department decided, for some reason, to file an amicus brief at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals saying that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which forbids discrimination in the workplace—doesn’t encompass sexual orientation. Despite federal and court precedence to the contrary, Sessions still felt the need to swoop in and let everyone know that, oh, by the way, dating or fucking or loving the wrong person means you’re not worthy of holding a job in peace. As BuzzFeed News notes, “The Trump administration’s filing is unusual in part because the Justice Department isn’t a party in the case, and the department doesn’t typically weigh in on private employment lawsuits.”

But nothing is typical in this administration, am I right?

I can’t say I’m surprised, given recent events. Donald Trump, for all the willfully ignorant optimism surrounding his election and presidency, has never made a secret of his intention to ensure that queer people—especially gender-nonconforming and trans folks, especially those of color or immigrants or Muslims or disabled people—are singled out for mistreatment. In February, Sessions and the U.S. Department of Education announced that the administration was withdrawing federal guidance noting that trans kids are protected under Title IX, which forbids discrimination in schools. In March, the Census Bureau announced that LGBT people would not be counted as such, and Trump signed an executive order rolling back anti-discrimination requirements for federal contractors. In June, the administration failed to recognize Pride Month, and Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court case striking down bans on same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, had maybe gone a little too far.

On literally the same day Attorney General Sessions swanned in and put a renewed fear of destitution into the hearts of queer people around the country, Trump tweeted that transgender individuals would no longer be able to serve in the military, though the chairman of the joint chiefs reportedly said Thursday “no modifications” will be made “to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.” Politico reports that Trump’s tweets were driven by his desire to pass a spending bill for a border wall that will do nothing but spur more anti-immigrant hatred, waste money, and devastate the local environment. Trans servicemembers were used as leverage over other vulnerable groups, many of whom are LGBTQ themselves.

This pattern has consequences. Without Census representation, it becomes harder to advocate for ourselves and our resources. If marriage rights are chipped away, LGBTQ people may not be able to appear on the birth certificates of our children, or access our partner’s workplace benefits. And, of course, with no guarantee we won’t be fired for kissing our girlfriends in the office parking lot, many of us will go back into the closet, or never come out. That is, if we’re fortunate enough to have a job in the first place.

The overwhelming effect, though, is that we are learning we don’t matter, or that we should disappear altogether. I can’t say enough how lonely it feels to carry around a secret you’re not even truly ashamed of, how its weight drags you down until you’re astonished everyone can’t see it as soon as they look at you.

All of us are being regarded as collateral, as good as imaginary, nothing but distractions—not from the “real issues” but for an elected official who would rather throw tantrums than display any shred of competence whatsoever. Like a sticky-handed toddler throwing his toys until he gets his ice cream cone, except toddlers, I’m told, can be taught sympathy.

I know the law only goes so far. Title VII forbids sex- and race-based discrimination, for example, and Black women still make 65 cents to every dollar earned by a white man more than five decades after its passage. Proving discrimination in court, even that which is legally forbidden, is a matter of years, time, energy, and money, all of which are privileges in and of themselves. Expanding Title VII won’t outright solve the ongoing issue of workplace anti-LGBTQ harassment. And even robust civil protections won’t keep LGBTQ people, especially trans women of color, from being targeted for violence.

But it still means something. It means anti-discrimination protections at the office for people in the entire country, not just half of it. It means that we have the right to try to make a living, to support our families, to work at organizations we believe in. It means we’re worthy of other rights too, like adopting children or leasing apartments. It means showing up to conferences with an alternative lifestyle haircut and not playing the “pronoun game.” It means inviting my co-workers to any future wedding regardless of my spouse’s gender, or even posting photos of that wedding on Facebook. It means being as honest about my life as my straight co-workers can be. It means one significant push in the opposite direction for a society that seems to want us all closeted or dead.

It means that I live in a country that elected a president who sees me as anything more than a hindrance at best and a pariah at worst—and whose administration is making that clear, day after day.

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