At my very first job, I remember being continually misgendered, sexually harassed and gaslighted while being exploited, paid under the table, expected to work overtime and never compensated for it, and continually asked to work when we were closed, on our own personal time. This was a minimum wage service job.
For a long time, I was unaware of how we were being exploited. I just remember feeling constant fear, dread and exhaustion. It took another queer coworker speaking up, quitting and encouraging me to do the same for me to realize that I could leave — and that we all had a right to sue.
Even so, I remember feeling so terrified to ever see my boss again after I left, despite collecting evidence and materials supporting my case — that several discriminatory labor laws had been violated, and for being manipulated to work without pay (I wasn’t even planning to touch on sexual assault). And despite mustering the courage to get the paperwork for a summons prepared, I never went through with the case.
I was reminded of this over the summer when, in the middle of Pride Month, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the LGBTQ community’s workplace protections. Queer and trans people were encouraged to see this as a “win.” Transgender Law Center tweeted “#BREAKING: In a historic win #SCOTUS has ruled in favor of LGBTQ employees. Amid continued murders of Black people & powerful uprisings, we take a moment to celebrate today. This victory reflects the work of trans leaders who fought to make this possible.” Especially after Trump made it legal again to discriminate against trans folk, by rolling back the protections given to us by the Affordable Care Act, this seemed like a positive bit of news.
But the right to safely work and make a living is as basic as it gets, and the fact that we’re expected to celebrate something like this is part of the problem. It’s 2020 — we need to stop celebrating crumbs like bare-minimum protections.
The real problem with this so-called victory is that it is really a protection in name only. This law does very little materially for queer and trans folk in the workplace.
We can still be fired for literally any other reason. The law does not protect us or keep us safe from discriminatory employment practices, it just forces employers to come up with another excuse for their actions. If your boss is transphobic, they could fire you over something else that they might let slide from another employee, or just make you so miserable that you quit on your own.
And even if you have evidence and the grounds to take your employer to court, this “win” is only helpful for those who have access to lawyers, as well as the time and legal literacy to navigate the complicated process, not to mention the support and energy to fight a situation that has already likely taken emotional, mental and physical tolls.
These barriers are erased when we are asked to celebrate our “workplace protections.” Who do these protections really protect and serve? Who can access them?
This false-flag victory diverts focus from the larger social justice demands being made right now, like the defunding and abolishment of racist systems like the police force and prison industrial complex. The rollercoaster of actions around LGBTQ rights during Pride Month while there continue to be protests against police brutality in our streets is an intentional strategy to fracture and distract our communities.
Our liberation as non-Black queer and trans people, as non-Black people of color, is inextricably intertwined with the liberation of all Black folk. We should care whether or not our own humanity is tied up with the freedom and justice for Black people, but the thing about community is that these issues are not actually separate.
We don’t need to deign ourselves to celebrate such a tiny legal protection being ruled to stay in place, especially when it demonstrably does not produce material change. Of course we should be protected in our workplaces. We deserve that, and much more.
What we need is to see our demands for justice, and a future that we want, as non-negotiable: a world where Black folk aren’t constantly at the mercy of our racist, carceral systems, where queer and trans people of color don’t have to wade through legal paperwork to access our rights. We need to stay critical of news we read, even news that is “by us, for us,” and recognize our worth as people and as a community.
Don’t get distracted, and don’t get complacent.