[This is a guest post by Surya Rajkumar.]
The United States Supreme Court last week delivered its opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, where it held that protection against discrimination under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, 1964 (‘Title VII’) was available to lesbian, gay and transgender individuals. This the court did using the ‘but for’ test to rule that discriminating against an individual for being lesbian, gay or transgender necessarily involved discrimination because of that individual’s sex––sex being a protected characteristic under Title VII. The decision has rightly been hailed as a victory for the gay rights movement especially in the backdrop of the fact that it was legal to fire employees for being lesbian/gay/transgender in more than half of the states in the U.S. However, as I shall argue in this piece, the logic employed by the court is inadequate to deal with discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. As I will contend, the notions of gender and sexual orientation are fluid and as protected characteristics under anti-discrimination law, they will have to be treated distinctly and cannot be conflated with the notion of sex.
There are those who argue that the decision is not as broad in its scope as it left open the question of whether the right to religious freedom permitted individuals/organizations to circumvent their obligations under Title VII. This is of particular concern as the Court’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, delivered two years ago, held that it was legal for a person to not offer his services to gay individuals citing his religious convictions. On the other hand, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, the decision’s limited scope stems from extending the notion of sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity, as such an extension is accompanied by the exclusion of sexual orientations and gender identities such as bisexual and intersex individuals. It may be true that the Court has created a loophole in leaving open the question of religious freedom coming in conflict with Title VII. This however is beyond the scope of this piece. I shall also discuss the Indian approach to extending constitutional protections to sexual minorities, and how this may provide a viable model to treating discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
The logic of the Court
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Section 703) makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual because of (among other grounds) such individual’s sex. With reference to this, the Court in Bostock held that “[a]n employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.” According to the Court, “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” The Court demonstrates this using two separate examples for homosexual and transgender individuals. In the context of homosexual individuals, the Court examines a situation where there are two employees, one female and one male, both attracted to men. Here, “[i]f the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.” Hence the employer discriminates against the male employee based on his sex. Similarly, for transgender individuals, the Court considers an example of “a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female.” Here, “[i]f the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth.” Therefore, discriminating against someone for being trans necessarily involves a differentiation based on sex. Based on these examples, the Court, while agreeing that “that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex” holds that “discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.”
The inadequacies of the Court’s logic qua sexual orientation and gender identity
To the extent that Title VII extends to lesbian, gay and transgender individuals, the Bostock opinion is indeed correct and welcome. But it should occur to one that sexual orientation and gender identity are more than homosexuality and transgender status respectively. When we consider sexual orientations and gender identities other than the ones considered by the Court, the opinion in Bostock comes across as inadequate. Notably, the majority opinion makes no mention of bisexuality or intersex status which form part of sexual orientation and gender identity respectively. Unsurprisingly, if these categories were replaced in the examples proffered by the Court, one would reach radically different results, where discrimination based on such characteristic does not involve considerations of sex at all.
For instance, let’s say there are two employees, one female and one male, and that the female employee who is bisexual and is at present partnered to a member of the opposite sex, is discharged by her employer for being bisexual. Here, the bisexual employee is not being treated any differently based on sex, as the employer is not intolerant of her relationship with a person of the opposite sex but intolerant to her identification as a bisexual individual. The same could be said of an asexual person who isn’t attracted to any sex at all! Hence, in the context of sexual orientation, the example offered by the Court is insufficient in its coverage of alternate sexualities such as bisexuality and asexuality. Similarly, the example offered by the Court qua transgender individuals is also inadequate to address discrimination faced by individuals with other gender identities. For example, in the case of an intersex individual, there may be no comparable ‘sex’ in the male/female sense.
The point I am seeking to make is that discrimination faced inter alia by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals is sourced not to their sex but their identity informed by sexual orientation and gender identity, however incidental such discrimination is to sex. The issue with conflating certain forms of sexual orientation and gender identity with sex is that it risks the exclusion of other such forms. The problem is compounded by the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are fluid notions that are ill-suited to be treated alongside sex especially when the latter is viewed rigidly as a male-female dichotomy. That sex cannot extend to mean sexual orientation and gender identity formed a large part of Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in Bostock. Yet this cannot seek to invalidate the majority opinion, as Alito J’s argument in his opinion only reinforces what I am seeking to argue here, namely that the majority judgment is not incorrect, but inadequate to combat discrimination based on certain forms sexual orientation and gender identity. The only way, I argue, to address this inadequacy is to treat sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics in their own right under anti-discrimination law. In this regard the Indian approach offers a viable alternative in addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Indian approach as a viable alternative
Implementing protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through explicit statutory recognition, is in my view, the most suitable way to address the inadequacies discussed above. Had there been such statutory recognition, cases like Bostock would never come to be. It is in the face of such legislative reluctance, that the Indian approach shows the way in expanding the word ‘sex’ to include sexual orientation and gender identity, while also treating the latter categories distinctly. Two decisions of the Indian Supreme Court become relevant in this regard. They are NALSA v. Union of India and Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India.
Using Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination inter alia on the ground of sex, the Court in NALSA and Navtej has extended protection under Article 15 to gender identity and sexual orientation respectively. Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan in NALSA held that “discrimination on the ground of ‘sex’ … includes discrimination on the ground of gender identity.” He justified this on the basis that it was in line with the intent of the architects of the Indian Constitution who “gave emphasis to the fundamental right against sex discrimination so as to prevent the direct or indirect attitude to treat people differently, for the reason of not being in conformity with stereotypical generalizations of binary genders.”
Affirming the view mentioned above, Justice Indu Malhotra in Navtej held that ‘sex’ “is not merely restricted to the biological attributes of an individual, but also includes their “sexual identity and character”.” Given that sexual orientation is a ground analogous to ‘sex’ in light of the former’s immutable status and fundamental choice, Justice Malhotra held that the prohibition of discrimination based on sex encompasses “instances where such discrimination takes place on the basis of one’s sexual orientation.”
When compared to Bostock, one cannot overstate the amplitude of NALSA and Navtej in their coverage. Whereas Bostock extends anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender employees, NALSA and Navtej–using an evolutionary and emancipatory interpretation of constitutional text–extend such protection to gender identity and sexual orientation respectively as a whole. Consequently, those groups left out of Bostock’s ambit can claim protection under NALSA (ex: intersex individuals) and Navtej (ex: asexual and bisexual individuals).
The majority opinion in Bostock is remarkably precise in its conclusion that “[a]n employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” For an employer who fires an individual for merely being bisexual or intersex or any other category of sexual orientation and gender identity excluding gays and transgenders, may not be defying the law. Therefore, it is not misplaced to say that Bostock only offers a limited protection from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Instead, as we saw, the Indian approach in NALSA and Navtej offers a viable alternative to Bostock, as it treats gender identity and sexual orientation for what they are: not as incidental to sex but as distinct characteristics that merit seperate consideration however dependent they are on sex.