March 4, 1998– The US Supreme Court decides Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services
Young Joseph Oncale was glad to have found work on an oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, working for Sundowner Offshore Services. His job was as a roustabout on an eight-man crew. But, he wasn’t happy about the incidents where his coworkers subjected him to sex-related, humiliating actions in front of the rest of the crew. Oncale was taunted, sodomized with a bar of soap, and threatened with rape. He complained to his supervisors, but nothing was ever done. In fact, the company’s Safety Compliance Clerk called him a faggot. Oncale finally couldn’t take it anymore and quit, requesting that his record reflect that he “voluntarily left due to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.”
Oncale filed a complaint against Sundowner Offshore Services in the United States District Court For The Eastern District Of Louisiana, alleging that he had been discriminated against in his employment because of his sex. He lost in The US District Court with the judges writing: “Mr. Oncale, a male, has no cause of action under Title VII for harassment by male co-workers.” Oncale appealed his case to the United States Court Of Appeals For The Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the earlier decision, but taking his case to the Supreme Court, the decision was reversed.
Justice Antonin Scalia, no friend to LGBTQ people, in a terse opinion, rejected the idea that there was no such thing as Male-On-Male sexual harassment, Scalia acknowledged: “It was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII.” (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination “because of sex.) The principal evil, of course, was male-on-female workplace discrimination. Still, Scalia explained:
“Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
This statement has formed the basis of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s expansion of Title VII’s protections to sexual and transgender minorities. In a 2012 decision holding that Title VII bars discrimination based on gender identity and transgender status, the EEOC placed Scalia’s “comparable evils” declaration at the center of its policies. That’s right, kids, thanks to Scalia, LGBTQ workers in every state are protected from workplace discrimination by federal law.
He probably never meant to, but Scalia has helped make America a more LGBTQ-friendly nation.
The case set a criterion for analyzing the idea of sexual harassment without motivation of “sexual desire”, stating that any discrimination based on sex is wrong so long as it places the victim in a disadvantageous working condition, regardless of the gender of either the victim or the harasser.
But even after the SCOTUS ruling, lower courts struggled on how to deal with harassment that appears to be based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, because employment discrimination based on sexual orientation was not forbidden by Federal law. But, in July 2015, the EEOC determined that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation was, in fact, illegal under Title VII, using Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services as a basis. That is why it is a landmark Gay Rights case, even though everyone involved was straight.
Predictably, the big orange POTUS has plans to profoundly defund The EEOC. He named Victoria Lipnic to serve as chairman. Lipnic has a history of viewing discrimination through her very conservative lens, favoring big business over workers. In 2015, she voted that discrimination based on sexual orientation should not be considered a type of gender discrimination, and should not be prohibited under Title VII. She lost that vote, but with the new administration, be prepared for LGBTQ protections in the workplace to be rolled back.