The Gay Perjury Trap

by Christopher R. Leslie

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Abstract

In Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court held Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based employment discrimination applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although the opinion is an important victory, if history is any guide, Bostock was only one battle in a larger war against invidious workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Prejudiced employers and managers will seek alternative, less obvious ways to discriminate. Judges and civil rights lawyers must prepare themselves to recognize and reject pretextual rationales for adverse actions taken against lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees. A better understanding of history can inform those efforts.

This Article examines an unexplored chapter in the United States’ history of anti-gay discrimination in the workplace: punishing gay workers for concealing their sexual orientation. Beginning in the 1960s, as federal and state law implemented procedural protections for public-sector workers, employers developed a new mechanism to evade those protections: the gay perjury trap. At its core, the strategy is simple. An employer asks job applicants about their sexual orientation. If they reveal that they are gay, decline to hire them. If gay workers conceal their sexual orientation and it is later discovered, terminate them for their dishonesty. Either way, gay workers are purged from the workforce.

This Article provides historical examples of the federal government and local school districts using this strategy to terminate high-performing workers who were later discovered to be gay. After discussing the inherent unfairness of the gay perjury trap, this Article explains how prejudiced employers may attempt to deploy this strategy as a means of circumventing Title VII liability in the post-Bostock era. Finally, this Article discusses how courts should prevent employers from using the gay perjury trap in the post-Bostock work environment. Dismantling the gay perjury trap entails three components. First, courts should interpret Title VII as prohibiting employers from inquiring about an applicant’s or employee’s sexual orientation. Second, courts should not afford employers a general right to penalize gay workers for concealing or misrepresenting their sexual orientation. Third, courts should construe Title VII to protect employees who refuse to answer questions about their sexual orientation.

Whether Title VII can effectively deter and remedy anti-gay discrimination will in significant part depend on courts’ ability to recognize and prohibit employers from using the gay perjury trap. The post-Bostock Title VII cannot succeed if employers can use alleged dishonesty about sexual orientation as a means of punishing gay workers and avoiding liability.

The Gay Perjury Trap

by Christopher R. Leslie

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

In Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court held Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based employment discrimination applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although the opinion is an important victory, if history is any guide, Bostock was only one battle in a larger war against invidious workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Prejudiced employers and managers will seek alternative, less obvious ways to discriminate. Judges and civil rights lawyers must prepare themselves to recognize and reject pretextual rationales for adverse actions taken against lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees. A better understanding of history can inform those efforts.

This Article examines an unexplored chapter in the United States’ history of anti-gay discrimination in the workplace: punishing gay workers for concealing their sexual orientation. Beginning in the 1960s, as federal and state law implemented procedural protections for public-sector workers, employers developed a new mechanism to evade those protections: the gay perjury trap. At its core, the strategy is simple. An employer asks job applicants about their sexual orientation. If they reveal that they are gay, decline to hire them. If gay workers conceal their sexual orientation and it is later discovered, terminate them for their dishonesty. Either way, gay workers are purged from the workforce.

This Article provides historical examples of the federal government and local school districts using this strategy to terminate high-performing workers who were later discovered to be gay. After discussing the inherent unfairness of the gay perjury trap, this Article explains how prejudiced employers may attempt to deploy this strategy as a means of circumventing Title VII liability in the post-Bostock era. Finally, this Article discusses how courts should prevent employers from using the gay perjury trap in the post-Bostock work environment. Dismantling the gay perjury trap entails three components. First, courts should interpret Title VII as prohibiting employers from inquiring about an applicant’s or employee’s sexual orientation. Second, courts should not afford employers a general right to penalize gay workers for concealing or misrepresenting their sexual orientation. Third, courts should construe Title VII to protect employees who refuse to answer questions about their sexual orientation.

Whether Title VII can effectively deter and remedy anti-gay discrimination will in significant part depend on courts’ ability to recognize and prohibit employers from using the gay perjury trap. The post-Bostock Title VII cannot succeed if employers can use alleged dishonesty about sexual orientation as a means of punishing gay workers and avoiding liability.