“The Department of Commerce does not tolerate behavior, harassment, discrimination or prejudice based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability,” says the Department of Commerce’s 2017 Secretarial Policy Statement on Equal Employment Opportunity, signed by Secretary Wilbur Ross. Notice anything missing? Unlike previous years’ statements, this one omits “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” from the categories protected from discrimination. And during Pride Month!
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Secretary Penny Pritzker, under President Obama, included the categories in her 2016 EEO statement, and included more specifics about the types of harassment that can occur, reading “The Department of Commerce does not tolerate discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination), sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age (40 years of age and over), genetic information, or disability (physical or mental), including the provision of reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants and employees with disabilities or genetic information.” Since these statements tend to use much of the same wording, the choice to eliminate categories seems to be an active one.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held that discrimination against someone based on gender identity or sexual orientation counts under “sex” discrimination, and thus is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2014, President Obama also signed an executive order that added sexual orientation and gender identity protections for all federal workers.
However, the omission certainly sends the message that gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t considered protected by the department. “If I were a manager I’d be really afraid that other managers are going to look at this and think that these are not protected people,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told BuzzFeed News.
The good news is, because of the outrage, the Department of Commerce is amending their statement. “To be clear, the Department’s EEO policy statement was never intended to change the policy or exclude any protected categories. The Department of Commerce policy remains that we do not discriminate on the basis of transgender status and sexual orientation,” a Department of Commerce Spokesperson told ELLE.com over email. “Department employees will continue to enjoy the fullest extent of the protections of all the non-discrimination laws. EEOC has instructed federal agencies to process complaints of discrimination on the basis of transgender status and sexual orientation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and through the federal sector EEO complaint process at 29 C.F.R. Part 1614 as claims of sex discrimination. Secretary Ross has directed the Department to reissue the policy statement to address any concerns and prevent misinterpretation.”