District court rules that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrmination

A US District Court in California has ruled that there is no clear line of distinction between discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation and discriminating against them based on their sex. From Erin Buzuvis at Title IX Blog:

Pepperdine's logo, via Wikimedia Commons

Pepperdine’s logo, via Wikimedia Commons

Two female athletes are suing Pepperdine University over discrimination they experienced as athletes on the basketball team. They allege that the head coach and other athletic department employees singled them out for unfair treatment because they suspected that the plaintiffs were lesbians and in a relationship with each other, and when they complained about mistreatment, they were forced off the team and lost their scholarships. The athletes sued the university under Title IX and other state laws. And while their case was initially dismissed, the athletes received permission to amend their complaint, and when they did, Pepperdine again moved to dismiss. This time, however, the court denied the university’s motion, which means that the plaintiffs can continue to litigate the case and begin preparing for trial.

The court’s decision is significant for how it treated Pepperdine’s argument that the plaintiffs cannot sustain a claim under Title IX because the statute does not cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Specifically, the court refused to consider sexual orientation discrimination a separate category of discrimination, but rather, viewed it as a subset of sex discrimination. The court reached this conclusion in two separate ways —  first, by viewing sexual orientation discrimination as a type of gender stereotype discrimination, and second by considering it a matter of  “straightforward” sex discrimination.

Title IX and other anti-discrimination laws that cover gender have long been interpreted to cover discrimination that is grounded in gender stereotypes. For instance, discriminating against a woman for wearing jeans instead of a skirt. However, only recently has that logic been extended to sexual relationships and sexual orientation more broadly. But it makes sense. If it’s wrong to discriminate against a woman for wearing jeans based on the stereotype that women wear skirts, then it’s also wrong to discriminate against a woman for being in a relationship with a woman based on the stereotype that women enter into relationships with men.

As the court’s ruling reads, “If the women’s basketball staff in this case had a negative view of lesbians based on lesbians’ perceived failure to conform to the staff’s views of acceptable female behavior, actions taken on the basis of these negative biases would constitute gender stereotype discrimination.” As Buzuvis points out, this is a really, really big deal. It basically says that Title IX applies to all claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation (and perhaps gender identity?) already, without the need for clarification from the executive branch.

Furthermore, the Court held that Pepperdine could have discriminated against the students along more straightforward lines. Setting aside the argument that the school illegally discriminated against the students based on gender stereotypes, you could just as easily say that they discriminated against the students based on their gender to begin with. Had these two female students instead been male, then their dating female classmates wouldn’t have been an issue. They were discriminated against based on their sex. Open and shut.

As the Court wrote, “Simply put, the line between sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination is ‘difficult to draw’ because that line does not exist, save as a lingering and faulty judicial construct.”

Last summer the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission used this principle to rule that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation was already illegal, as it violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex. Expect more courts to use this principle to validate claims of discrimination by gay and lesbian plaintiffs in the future. We may not need a new law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation; we may just need the courts to catch up with the laws already on the books.

UPDATE: Here’s the ruling, if you want to read it in full:

[iframe src=”http://freepdfhosting.com/8eec73bea3.pdf”]


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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5 Responses to “District court rules that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrmination”

  1. Melo11 says:

    It’s so complicated.. On one side both sexes should be equal, but on the other most of the time I can’t understand the way of their thinking: for example the way women drive cars, it’s too dangerous to give her keys. I know it sounds too jingo… But, dawg!!! A couple of days ago she present me https://www.hydromaxbathmate.com/?ko=46. I was completely shocked, I just couldn’t say no word to her. What was she thinking of?!

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  4. Jon Green says:

    Good call. Updated to add the iframe.

  5. dcinsider says:

    This decision is fascinating and you should post it. The judge moved the line for sexual orientation discrimination just enough, and with a finesse we rarely see, that could make the EEOC ruling stick. Scalia’s head would fall off, but this decision takes the line of cases dealing with gender stereotyping, and extends it in a logical and persuasive fashion. I was very skeptical of the EEOC’s ruling, but this decision gives me some hope.

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