The Biden administration is inducting a transgender woman and two gay men into the Department of Labor (DOL) Hall of Honor, describing them as “LGBTQ+ Trailblazers” that helped advance workplace protections and equity. The trio will join the likes of the 9/11 rescue workers who “engaged in a heroic effort to rescue survivors of terrorist attacks,” President Ronald Reagan, United Farm Workers of America leader César Chávez and disability rights advocate Helen Keller. Last year’s inductees were the essential workers of the Coronavirus pandemic who showed up when everyone else stayed home. The DOL notes that they were disproportionately women and workers of color.
“The Labor Hall of Honor recognizes individuals and groups whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor have enhanced the quality of life of millions – yesterday, today, and for generations to come,” the agency writes in its Hall of Honor Inductees page. “Nominees are considered on a rolling basis, and formal induction ceremonies are conducted at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.” Every inductee is listed along with a portrait and a brief description of what they did to deserve the honor. The first to be recognized in 1989 was Cyrus S. Ching, a labor union leader who was appointed director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service by President Harry Truman. Ching “established a pattern of constructive cooperation with employees,” according to the DOL, which includes a quote from Ching calling collective bargaining one of the greatest cornerstones of our democratic institutions.
Besides the LGBTQ+ trailblazers this year’s honorees include dozens of Thai garment workers discovered by federal agents in 1995 at a sweatshop in the southern California city of El Monte, which is in Los Angeles County. The case sparked national outcry, according to the DOL, and inspired legislation against human trafficking and forced labor. “Through sheer determination and perseverance, the workers defied the odds and fought bravely for the freedom, rights and protections long denied to them,” the agency writes in this year’s Hall of Honor announcement. “Their case galvanized significant changes in U.S. labor and immigration law.” The Thais were allowed to stay in the U.S. and were provided with a path to citizenship. “The El Monte Thai garment workers serve as a lasting reminder of the importance of the Department of Labor’s mission to protect rights of all workers,” said the agency’s acting secretary, Julie Su, adding that their contributions to federal labor and immigration laws cannot be understated.
Afterall, the DOL conducts the annual Hall of Honor induction to “recognize extraordinary individuals whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor elevated working conditions, wages and overall quality of life of America’s working families.” It remains unclear how the LGBTQ+ trailblazers met the criteria, but the agency is nevertheless honoring them. The transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, got fired and received a severance package after working six years at a Detroit funeral home as a man. When Stephens informed her employer that she was taking leave to undergo gender affirming surgery and would return as a woman in 2013, the owner terminated her, and the Obama Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the business for sex discrimination. In 2016 a federal court ruled in favor of the funeral home, but a federal appellate court reversed the decision after the EEOC appealed. In 2020 the Supreme Court ruled against the funeral home, which argued that federal protections against sex discrimination do not include gender identity or transgender status.
The two gay men who will be honored this month along with the transgender woman also took their case to the Supreme Court. Donald Zarda was a skydiving instructor in Long Island, New York when he came out as gay to ease a female customer’s concern. The customer complained and Zarda got fired for misconduct. He sued his employer alleging that he got fired based on his sexual orientation. A federal court in New York ruled in favor of the employer in 2014 and, although Zarda died later that year, his family appealed on his behalf, citing violation of the Civil Rights Act. The other DOL honoree, Gerald Bostock, claims he got fired as a child welfare advocate in a Georgia county after joining a gay recreational softball league in 2013. Last year the county approved a $825,000 settlement to resolve the case.