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Defending Equality: Champions for LGBT Rights

Today the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear what would have been a landmark trial for LGBT rights, until a national policy reversal resulted in the case being sent back to the lower court. The case is that of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old student from Virginia who was barred from using the boys’ restroom at his high school because he is transgender. Rather than accept this injustice, however, Gavin chose to fight, and in the process, he has become a national hero for transgender rights. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the school board on Gavin’s behalf, arguing that the policy, which segregates transgender students by forcing them to use “alternative private” restrooms, is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Beneath the surface, this case is about much more than just bathroom rights. It is about ensuring that all students in our public schools are treated fairly and given the same opportunities. It is about standing together as a nation and saying that we will not condone discrimination of any kind. It is about reaffirming the resolution that all Americans—gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, or other—deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is about equality.

Last year our country took an important step in this direction under the Obama administration when the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued clarifying guidance on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This new guidance instructed public schools to treat transgender and gender non-conforming students consistent with their gender identity, rather than with the sex on their birth certificate. Unfortunately, that guidance has now been rescinded, leaving trans kids in our public schools exposed to bullying and harassment. In light of this policy reversal, the Supreme Court sent Gavin’s case back down to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to be reconsidered, wiping out its previous ruling in Gavin’s favor.

Despite this (hopefully temporary) setback for transgender rights, there has been a tremendous outpouring of support for Gavin’s case from individuals and institutions across the country, including educators, faith leaders, medical professionals, and business leaders. Numerous amicus briefs were submitted to the Supreme Court supporting Gavin’s argument, including one signed by more than 50 of the largest and most well-known companies in the U.S. The brief reads:

Amici support and defend public policies that protect civil rights and foster acceptance and equal treatment for all of their employees, their customers, and the families of both. Many amici employ and/or serve transgender people, and all amici are concerned about the stigmatizing and degrading effects of the policy adopted by the Gloucester County School Board… The Policy, and the policies and statutes of other government entities that would be permitted if the Policy is sustained, adversely affects amici’s businesses, employees, and customers, and undermines amici’s ability to build and maintain the diverse and inclusive workplaces that are essential to the success of their companies.”

It has been shown that support from prominent companies can make a difference when it comes to civil rights causes. Over the past decade, a number of companies have emerged as leading champions for LGBT rights. Business leaders know that homophobia and transphobia have no place in forward-looking organizations. That is why 91% of Fortune 500 companies now prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 67% have extended health and insurance benefits to all LGBT families. Many did so after prompting by socially responsible investors, including Domini, and LGBT activists. While it is simply the right thing to do, studies suggest that it can also be good for business.

According to research from the Williams Institute, LGBT-supportive policies and workplace climates can affect organizational outcomes by leading to greater job commitment, improved workplace relationships, increased job satisfaction, improved health outcomes among LGBT employees, and increased productivity and creativity among LGBT employees. Other positive potential organizational outcomes may include lower health insurance costs, lower legal costs, greater access to new customers, more business from customers who want to do business with socially responsible companies, and more effective recruiting of employees who want to work for an employer that values diversity.

Despite the obvious benefits and the significant progress that continues to be made by the business community in protecting and promoting LGBT rights, the law has not caught up with the times. Both at the national level and in many states, legal protections for LGBT people are still lacking. In many places people can still be fired or denied employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sixteen U.S. states do not provide ANY legal protection for LGBT employees, while a number of others provide protection only in public service. Some states provide protection on the basis of sexual orientation, but not on the basis of gender identity, leaving out a particularly vulnerable portion of the LGBT population.

Meanwhile, the past few years have seen a concerning rise in anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures around the country, including numerous “religious freedom bills”. These controversial bills, which seek to provide businesses the legal right to deny services to LGBT individuals on the basis of religious beliefs, have been met with widespread criticism and boycotts from opponents who argue that religion is not an excuse for discrimination.

When lawmakers and politicians stand behind senseless policies that enable harassment and discrimination in our public schools, while simultaneously backing bills seeking to make it legal for businesses to openly discriminate, they are failing to uphold our nation’s founding principle of equality, leaving the rest of us with an even greater responsibility to help defend it.  Businesses in particular, which employ and serve LGBT people, have a responsibility to use their voices to help change these discriminatory policies. When companies speak, lawmakers listen. Last year, for example, the governor of Georgia vetoed a religious freedom bill after a number of major companies threatened to pull business out of the state.

Companies also have the opportunity to set examples within their own organizations for how tolerant, open-minded cultures should act. One simple step is to ensure that their non-discrimination policies cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. While the former is widely covered today, fewer companies have added protections for transgender and gender non-conforming employees. This is something every company can and should do. Companies should also make efforts to promote diversity education and inclusion programs among employees to create an environment where everybody feels safe and welcome.

As investors, we have a role to play too. Domini has consistently voted in favor of shareholder proposals advancing LGBT rights. In the past, we also filed a number of our own resolutions that successfully convinced several companies to adopt policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2015, we signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case that established the right of same-sex couples to marry. More recently, we signed investor letters, backed by trillions in assets, opposing anti-transgender bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas. We also signed letters supporting twelve companies with operations in Singapore that sponsored Pink Dot Sg, an annual celebration in support of the country’s LGBT community. Singapore’s government, which is notorious for its anti-LGBT policies, warned the companies against sponsoring the pride event, but these letters encouraged them to stay the course.

It is encouraging that major companies are increasingly stepping up support for LGBT causes, from sponsoring pride rallies in Singapore to fighting against anti-trans bathroom laws here at home. LGBT rights are human rights. People like Gavin Grimm are not looking for special treatment; they just want to be shown the respect and dignity that everybody deserves, and to be able to live their lives without fear of harassment or discrimination. Companies have both the ability and the responsibility to help make that happen, and as investors we will continue to encourage them to do so.