Photo | Shane Rice
By Jason Johnson and Dale Liesch
Years ago, as an employee at a chemical plant in McIntosh, Alabama, Jeff Vice knew he was gay, and he also knew he’d lose his job if any coworkers ever found out that detail about his personal life.
Fortunately, the 51-year-old Mobile native says he’s had employers in the years since who’ve been much more accepting of who he is. Even so, like millions of LGBTQ+ Americans, Vice watched with jubilation last week as the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) handed down a surprising 6-3 decision to extend a ban of sex-based employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act to gay and transgender employees.
Vice called it “a huge step in the right direction,” telling Lagniappe he hopes it will lead to a future where no one has to experience the anxiety he did in McIntosh all those years ago.
“It’s monumental,” Vice said. “We’re finally doing the right thing.”
Hollywood would have been hard-pressed to script a better timing for SCOTUS’s ruling. It followed weeks of unrest over police killings of African Americans — a cause that overlaps with many in the LGBTQ+ community — and fell right during what is traditionally the busiest part of Pride Month.
Pride is an annual celebration, in LGBTQ+ communities around the globe, of the freedom to be themselves and what it took to obtain that freedom. The event has roots in the first gay pride parades, which were held in several major U.S. cities in 1970 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which saw members of the gay community clash with New York City police officers after several gay bars were raided in 1969.
As Pride 2020 comes to a close, many activists and supporters point to things like the recent protections against employment discrimination, and legalization of gay marriage in 2015, as signs that things have improved; but others say there’s still work to be done in the name of LGBTQ+ equality and acceptance.
Bostock v. Clayton County
The Bostock v. Clayton County case SCOTUS ruled on last week was a combination of three federal civil lawsuits brought by gay or transgender individuals who had been terminated from their jobs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
With a slight conservative majority on the court, the June 15 decision wasn’t a formality and was one that employers, labor attorneys and LGBTQ+ activists had been waiting for after similar cases led to split decisions in various federal circuits.
In their dissent, the minority of justices argued Congress could not have intended for protections against sex-based discriminations to apply to gay and transgender individuals when they passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch argued that’s what the law requires when applied to the realities of today’s society, whether or not Congress consciously intended it.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
Day Peake III, a labor and employment attorney based in Mobile, told Lagniappe Title VII only applies to companies with 15 or more employees, so the protections afforded by the recent ruling won’t be universally applied in states — like Alabama — that haven’t adopted specific LGBTQ+ protections.
While Peake personally believes it’s a good change, he said it could be a complicated one for businesses and that could have an immediate impact on a number of cases pending in various federal circuits.
“If you’re looking at businesses that already have a regional or national footprint, because of the protections that many states already have, most companies have found it easier to simply adopt internal company policies that have already achieved these protections,” Peake said. “But for those that may not have had an interest in trying to have uniform coverage through their own policy in the past, this is going to mean more than just adding one or two words to an existing policy.”
But for LGBTQ+ individuals who’ve felt they had to keep their orientation secret, or put off transitioning for fear of termination, the legal nuances of what the ruling means are hardly a concern at the moment. As founder and executive director of the nonprofit LGBTQ+ community organization Rainbow Mobile, Bryan Fuenmayor called the ruling last week “historical” and “monumental.”
“This is something we’ve been fighting for a long time,” Fuenmayor said. “It’s also something that really, really affects our community because many of us have to go into hiding when we go to work and that affects everything from productivity to job happiness when you have to lie about who you are.”
In the transgender community, the Bostock decision was also welcome news.
Terri Ellen, who heads the Southern Transgender Alliance (STA), said it could not have come at a better time, calling it “a needed win.” Just days before, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reversed an Obama-era rule prohibiting medical discrimination based on sex or gender or identity.
While HHS has said it still plans to enact the new rule in August as planned, LGBTQ+ rights groups like Lambda Legal have already filed a legal challenge to its implementation, and it’s fair to assume that most any court case arising from those efforts will cite the recent Bostock definition of “sex.”
Ellen said transgender individuals have a high risk for workplace discrimination, especially those in the process of transitioning. Coming out as gay or bisexual doesn’t impact coworkers directly, but transitioning can mean changes in someone’s appearance, where they go to the bathroom and how they’re addressed by others on the job.
Ellen, who works for the state government, said her co-workers were great when she transitioned in 2017 but said there are many examples of others whose experience was much worse. She said there have been many people who have not transitioned out of fear of losing their jobs or losing health insurance because they lose their job.
“That opinion was a miracle. It gave us a lot of hope… hope we didn’t have, and it was very much unexpected from a conservative majority court,” Ellen said. “Things had been up in the air, but the SCOTUS win was huge. We’ve seen very little done during this administration. In fact, it’s been a constant rollback of protections for us, and it’s been scary. We just want to live our lives and be left alone.”
Still, Fuenmayor noted that, even with new definitions applied by SCOTUS, there’s no catchall protection for employees of small businesses. Plus, he said rights until Title VII don’t protect employees from being fired; they just allow them to seek resources through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — something that can take time and cost money to pursue, often with varying results.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Fuenmayor said he’d still like to see some type of blanket discrimination protection through state legislation or even local municipal legislation similar to ordinances that have been adopted in other Alabama cities. He said working with smaller governments might be more productive.
Last year, the Mobile City Council voted to revive a long-inactive Human Rights Commission and considered adopting an ordinance similar to ones in Birmingham and Montevallo that prevent discrimination in housing, public accommodation and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identification.
Those considerations came in July 2019 after Mobile County Treasurer Phil Benson upset the LBGTQ+ community with social media comments many felt were “homophobic” and insensitive. While the incident made national news, the city hasn’t moved any closer to adopting any kind of LGBTQ+ protections and the Human Rights Commission doesn’t appear to have met since being reestablished.
Changes over the decades
Whether it’s because of Mardi Gras or its proximity to New Orleans, Mobile has maintained a gay scene for a number of years — especially for city in a conservative, Christian state like Alabama. Today, there are multiple bars and shows with LGBTQ+ themes frequented by all kinds of patrons.
Back in the mid-’90s, a 25-year-old Jeff Vice opened a gay bar called Spotlight near Bienville Square on Dauphin Street downtown. It had three floors of entertainment and featured special nights specifically for LGBTQ+ youth under the age of 21 to get in and dance without fear.
According to Vice, around the same time he opened Spotlight, he attended a march in New York City to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Last year, he attended World Pride Day at the same locations and said there were stark differences.
Vice said many facets of U.S. culture have shifted and adopted a much more tolerant view of the LGBTQ+ community. He told Lagniappe that 25 years ago he would have never dreamed a gay man would have five granddaughters, but today he and his husband, Travis, are living proof that it’s possible.
As one of the longest-serving members of the Order of Osiris, the Mardi Gras organization founded for the LGBTQ+ community in Mobile, Vice remembers when it was sparsely attended and was a night that people like him could be considered “mainstream.”
Now, he said, it’s very popular and all-inclusive.
“It’s the hottest ticket in town,” Vice said. “We have to turn people away.”
Jerry Ehlen opened B-Bob’s Downtown in October 1992 to give the LGBTQ+ community in Mobile a place to enjoy the nightlife. Ehlen said the vast majority of the customers at the venue known for its drag shows were part of the LGBTQ+ community at the time it opened.
However, Ehlen said, as drag shows became more mainstream, especially with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” becoming a hit TV show, more straight Mobilians have begun frequenting his bar.
“About a third of the drag show audience is straight, and you just wouldn’t have seen that back in 1992,” Ehlen said. “People are just people.”
That attitude also extends to the nightlife scene in Mobile.
Ehlen said when he moved to the Port City initially, there were as many as nine gay bars in the downtown area. Now there are four. While that might sound like a loss for the gay community, Ehlen said the decline in gay bars is due to the greater awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in society at large.
“You don’t have to go to a gay bar to be accepted anymore,” he added.
While some of the changes in attitudes and the law over the past two decades have been welcomed by members of the LGBTQ+ community, Suzanne Cleveland represents a group that has also championed equal protections and equal rights for members of the community: their parents.
According to Cleveland, she and her sister were involved in theater and weren’t unfamiliar with the gay community. But despite that, when her son came out after graduating from Spring Hill College in the 1990s, Cleveland says her initial reaction wasn’t great.
“It was different when it was my own child, and unfortunately I think that’s true for a lot of people sometimes,” Cleveland said. “I hate to say this, but it’s almost like I made it about me. What will people think of me? And I had to get over that. I needed to be as proud of my gay son as I am of my other two children and be able to say my son is gay without having some kind of knot in my stomach.”
To do that, Cleveland set out on a journey of self-education, which eventually led her to start the first Mobile chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which is now just known as PFLAG and has expanded to include the parents of anyone who falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
Since the 1970s, PFLAG chapters have served as a support system for parents of LGBTQ+ children who are seeking to learn more about their children’s lifestyles or seeking guidance from other parents who’ve gone through the same thing. Cleveland said it’s important work because parents have a critical role to play in loving and supporting their children, especially as they learn to navigate living an “open” life.
“Parents have to be willing not only to accept their child, but to embrace them and talk,” she said. “Don’t act like it’s something bad. It’s not. It’s wonderful.”
While PFLAG still technically exists in Mobile, it doesn’t meet regularly any longer and has seen declining participation over the past 10 years or so. However, Cleveland said she still picks up the phone to help answer questions for parents and to put people in touch with other existing resources like Prism United, a peer support group for LGBTQ+ teens as well as their parents, siblings and friends.
Cleveland said she believes the decline of interest in PFLAG is probably due to some of the other services that exist now, but she also hopes it’s a sign that fewer parents are struggling with accepting their children. With more positive representations of LGBTQ+ people in TV and movies than ever before, Cleveland said she hopes that visibility can help members of the community as well as their loved ones.
The struggle continues
While Fuenmayor agreed things have certainly improved over the last two decades, he also said there is still a need for education, inclusion, visibility and protection for the LGBTQ+ community in Mobile. It’s those broader goals the organization tries to accomplish by serving as a voice for the community.
Over the past two and half years, Rainbow Mobile has been one of the more prominent voices on LGBTQ+ issues in the Port City — from the controversy surrounding “drag queen story hours” at the Mobile Public Library in 2018 to the aftermath of Benson’s comments last year.
Things are better than they were, but when asked why celebrations like Pride Month are still important, Fuenmayor pointed to those incidents Rainbow Mobile has become involved in as well as the challenges many LGBTQ+ youth still face in their schools, among their friends and in their homes.
“Ideally, we shouldn’t need something like Rainbow Mobile or Pride or a parade, or as some would put it — ‘flaunting our sexuality in their faces,’” he said. “But, because many of us are brought up in an environment where we are taught to be ashamed of who we love and who we are, we believe visibility is extremely important both for acceptance in the community and also for our own personal mental health.”
Fuenmayor, who was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, didn’t come out to his family until he was 31 years old. That same year, the highest court in the nation struck down laws across the country banning same-sex marriage, but Fuenmayor said he didn’t even know that at the time. He said his entire family — mother, father, siblings, grandparents — all stopped communicating with him after he came out.
He said they believe he’s “choosing a deviant lifestyle,” but, despite growing up heavily involved in a church himself, Fuenmayor said he suppressed “who he was” until he simply couldn’t do so any longer.
“I got to a point where I was either going to leave or I was going to take my own life, and if I can prevent that from happening to anyone else, I will,” Fuenmayor said. “I did leave, and it hurt a lot, but I was eventually happier than I could ever remember being before.”
Fuenmayor said the entire process of coming out — from the suppression of his feelings to the reaction of his family — were all things that drew him toward creating Rainbow Mobile and getting involved with other LGBTQ+ services like the board of Prism United in Mobile.
And while some might see Pride displays in store windows or in corporate branding as a chance to hop on a bandwagon, Fuenmayor said it can really be impactful for members of the LGBTQ+ community to see that visible affirmation — especially for those who’ve not gotten that support from family and friends.
That’s one of the goals of Rainbow Mobile’s “#bevisible” campaign, which highlights local businesses that show visible support for the organization and the LGBTQ+ community — typically through the traditional rainbow flag associated that has been associated with gay pride for decades.
Fuenmayor said it might be easy for a multibillion-dollar company to change its picture on Facebook, but for small businesses in places like South Alabama, taking a public stand in support of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t something that can happen without the risk of alienating some customers.
“When you see people in larger cities do that, these are very accepting places where it’s not a big deal if a company changes their logo, but in somewhere like Mobile or Silverhill, Alabama, to see a business do that is monumental because you still have so many in the community who will still see that and say, ‘We’re going to boycott you,’” he said. “Those companies run a risk of losing business, and I think that takes real guts. That’s why I support it.”
Though Ellen is on the board of Rainbow Mobile, STA is a standalone support group for transgender and nonbinary individuals in Mobile that works to mentor and share resources with others. The group also looks to educate the community and promote trans visibility and inclusivity where it can.
Ellen said STA works to be there for others by sharing their stories and knowledge. Her goal is to be the person she wishes she could have talked to years ago when she began suffering from gender dysphoria.
After decades of denial and prayer, Ellen transitioned at 54. By that point, she said it had become a matter of “life and death.” As someone who was raised in a religious household, she compared the leap of faith it took to transition to Peter following Jesus out onto the water in the Sea of Galilee.
“It was always there — this disconnect between your mind and your body. For me, it was a huge dissonance, like playing a guitar out of tune, and the drive was always to be in tune,” she said. “But as I got older, the dysphoria became progressively worse and harder and harder to deal with.”
Speaking with Lagniappe, Ellen noted that the trans community isn’t in the same place as other parts of the LGBTQ+ movement. She said that interest in gay, lesbian and bi-sexual support groups has declined over time as those lifestyles have become more mainstream. But that’s why she believes STA’s work is so important.
Ellen strongly pushed back on the idea of gender identity being a conscious choice. She asked why anyone would choose to go through something that’s been so difficult for so many, and also questioned why some people seem to have strong objections to others living life as they’re most comfortable.
“I’m very nearsighted… I basically can’t see without contacts, and to me, that’s like someone telling me, ‘You chose to be nearsighted,’” Ellen said. “I would love to not be near-sighted, but I am, and it’s a miracle I get to put my contacts in every morning and see.”
“I didn’t choose to be transgender, either,” she added.
Updated at 5 p.m., June 24, to include comments from the Southern Transgender Alliance and Terri Ellen.
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