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2014 Jotwell: J. Things We Like [1] (2014)

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Gay Rights in the Workplace

Katherine Turk, Our Militancy is in Our Openness: Gay Emloyment Rights Activism in California and the
Question of Sexual Orientation in Sex Equality Law, 31 Law & Hist. Rev. 423 (2013).

Joanna Grisinger

Katherine Turk's recent article, 'Our Militancy is in Our Openness': Gay Employment Rights Activism in
California and the Question of Sexual Orientation in Sex Equality Law, offers a deeply researched history of
gay rights activism in California-the epicenter of the gay employment rights movement (P. 426)-that
engages important questions about the benefits and limits of different legal strategies. In this detailed local
history of the gay employment rights movement, Turk discusses the work of a number of advocacy
organizations in the state-including the ACLU of Southern California, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian
Center, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Society for International Rights, the Committee for
Homosexual  Freedom, the Committee on Rights within the Gay Community, and the National Gay Rights
Association-through  which activists pressed for equal rights in the workplace. Although this movement was
dominated by gay men, Turk makes clear that it is not a story of a fractured movement. Instead, activists
throughout the gay community understood the prosaic importance of employment rights, and the employment
nondiscrimination litigation at the center of her narrative embodied some of the most universal and consistent
claims at the heart of the modern gay rights movement. (P. 428.)

Activists called for a new model of workplace rights, as they sought legal protections that combined the equality
arguments used by women  and people of color with gay liberationist arguments that embraced sexual
orientation. In doing so, they contended that a worker's gender and sexual orientation were irrelevant to his or
her ability to perform a job, but that the freedom to signal those identities was an essential element of workplace
equality. (P. 426.) Thus, the gay employment rights movement rejected equality arguments based in sexual
privacy, which assumed that people could-or should-leave their sexual identity behind at the office door.
(P. 435.) Instead, activists argued, gay and lesbian workers should be able to participate in the workplace in the
same way  their heterosexual colleagues did-as workers with professional skills and rich personal lives.

However,  as Turk demonstrates, gay employment rights arguments were met with a cool reception.
Complicating the traditional rights-affirming narrative of Title VII of the        she
demonstrates that the statutory and judicial landscape of the 1970s was not open to employment discrimination
claims based on sexual orientation. The limitations of Title VII, which activists tried-and failed-to use to
their own benefit, are particularly apparent in the story of the litigation involving Pacific Telephone &
Telegraph (PT&T), one of California's largest employers. Although plaintiffs offered evidence that PT&T was
actively hostile to gay and lesbian workers, judges refused to accept arguments that sexual orientation deserved
inclusion under Title VII's ban on sex discrimination. As a result, courts effectively severed sex from gender

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