by Peter Sprigg
July 2, 2020
In a recent blog post, I noted that virtually all critics of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County identified his misinterpretation of the word “sex.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employment discrimination “because of sex,” and Justice Gorsuch interpreted “sex” to incorporate “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as well.
I went further and noted that not only is “sexual orientation” not the same as “sex” or merely a part of it, but it is a different type of personal characteristic. Sex is an objective characteristic determined by biology, while “sexual orientation” is a somewhat vague concept that includes a fluid combination of feelings, behaviors, and self-identification.
The same can be said of “gender identity”—it, too, involves a mix of feelings (“gender incongruity” or “gender dysphoria”), behaviors (“gender expression” in the form of clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc.), and self-identification (being “transgender,” “non-binary,” or “gender fluid,” for example).
However, the “gender identity” portion of Justice Gorsuch’s decision is even more muddled, and has even more radical implications, than the sexual orientation portion.
Bathrooms, Locker Rooms, and Dress Codes
For example, Justice Gorsuch dismisses concerns about “sex-segregated bathrooms, locker rooms, and dress codes,” saying those were not at issue in the Bostock case. Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent, however, declares, “The Court’s brusque refusal to consider the consequences of its reasoning is irresponsible.”
Although the majority opinion is 33 pages long, the heart of its reasoning is found in this simple hypothetical:
Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague. Put differently, the employer intentionally singles out an employee to fire based in part on the employee’s sex, and the affected employee’s sex is a … cause of his discharge.
(The flaw in this, as Alito and others point out, is that the fired employee in this hypothetical situation differs from the retained employee not in only one characteristic, but in two—both his sex and his sexual orientation are different.)
But let’s look at how the exact same analogy would apply to showers and locker rooms—perhaps made available as part of a fitness center provided by a company as a fringe benefit to its employees. Here is Gorsuch’s logic (with only the italicized portion changed from his opinion):
Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom seek to use a locker room and showers in which the employee may see female employees in the nude and may appear nude in front of female employees. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he looks at female employees nude in the locker room and shower and exposes his own nude body to female employees, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague. Put differently, the employer intentionally singles out an employee to fire based in part on the employee’s sex, and the affected employee’s sex is a … cause of his discharge.
This is not some generalized slippery slope argument—this is the precise (indeed, irresistible) logic of Gorsuch’s opinion.
But note something important: this outcome is not dependent on the employee’s “gender identity.” Under the Gorsuch logic, any male employee has the right to observe his female colleagues nude, and to expose his own nude body to them, in the locker room or shower. To limit this privilege only to males who identify as female would be, ironically, to “discriminate” on the basis of “gender identity.”
Lying About Sex
While this is the inescapable logic of Gorsuch’s opinion, he shies away from it in his actual discussion of “gender identity.” Here is the hypothetical he presents with respect to that issue:
Or take an employer who fires a transgender person who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer retains an otherwise identical employee who was identified as female at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth. Again, the individual employee’s sex plays an unmistakable and impermissible role in the discharge decision.
His previous hypothetical involving sexual orientation was (somewhat) more straightforward—because a “man” (a “male employee”) is treated differently from (what Gorsuch considers to be) a similarly situated “woman” (a “female colleague”), there is (Gorsuch argues) discrimination “because of sex.”
But in the gender identity hypothetical, there is no “man” or “woman,” no “male” or “female” employee at all—only a person “identified as male at birth” and one “identified as female at birth,” each of whom “now identifies as female.”
Earlier in the opinion, Justice Gorsuch had said that “we proceed on the assumption that [the word] “sex” [in 1964] signified … biological distinctions between male and female.” To be consistent with that “assumption,” the first employee in the hypothetical should have been described as “a transgender person who is male but who now identifies as a female.” That language, however, would have been offensive to transgender activists, who insist that self-identification defines what a person really “is.”
If Justice Gorsuch had been consistent (and honest)—referring to “a transgender person who is male but who now identifies as a female”—it would have cast the “discrimination” at issue in a different light. When an employer (such as Harris Funeral Homes, in this case) parts ways with an employee such as Anthony Stephens (because he wanted to identify as female and be known as “Aimee”), it is not because of the employee’s sex, but because the employee is lying about his sex.
Justice Gorsuch scrupulously avoided any mention of the LGBT movement and its philosophical assumptions in his opinion, insisting that he was merely applying literally the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, the inconsistency of his two hypotheticals shows that it is impossible to discuss “gender identity” without addressing fundamental concepts of what is true and what is real.
Outside the Supreme Court on the day of oral arguments, supporters of Harris Funeral Homes in the gender identity case (which included radical feminists from the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF) carried signs with the hashtag “#SexNotGender.” This carried two layers of meaning. The most basic relates to the court’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Act—discrimination because of “sex” refers to biological sex, and it does not extend to “gender” (identity). At a more philosophical level, “Sex Not Gender” implies support for the view that the objective, physical reality of one’s biological sex is a more reliable indicator of whether one is “male” or “female” than the subjective, psychological construct of “gender identity.”
Which is more important—“sex” or “gender identity?” This is a genuine debate, and Americans have a right to hold and argue for whichever opinion they believe in. The problem is, it is impossible to be neutral on this point—anyone who uses the categories of “male” or “female” at all must make a choice how to define them. The Bostock opinion chooses “gender identity,” and forces that choice on private employers, even though Congress plainly did not do so.
The Civil Rights Act made it unlawful for an employer to discriminate “because of sex.” The Bostock decision goes much further—essentially making it unlawful for an employer to act on the belief that “sex” is real. A law that was intended to protect the male and female sex is being interpreted to abolish (biological) sex altogether.