Congress has repeatedly rejected legislation that would extend Title VII protection to claims of sexual orientation discrimination. However, under Title VII, an employee may raise a claim of gender discrimination if that individual can demonstrate that an harasser was acting to punish the employee’s noncompliance with gender stereotypes. The 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed the claim of a self-described “effeminate man” to move forward to a jury trial, on the basis that the plaintiff presented evidence that his co-workers harassed him because of his non-compliance with male-associated stereotypes. Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc., 3d Cir., No. 07-3997, August 28, 2009.
Brian Prowel was one of 145 employees of Wise Business Forms in Butler, Pennsylvania, and had worked for the company since 1991. Prowel, an openly gay male, felt that his mannerisms caused him not to “fit in” with the other men at Wise. He described his male co-workers as “blue collar,” “very rough around the edges,” and “everything I wasn’t.” In stark contract, Wise had a high-pitched voice, walked and carried himself in an effeminate manner, and filed his fingernails “instead of ripping them off with a utility knife.”
Some of his co-workers reacted negatively to Prowel’s demeanor and appearance, calling him “Princess” and “Rosebud” and making fun of the way he talked, walked, and sat. Prowel complained to his supervisors, but the harassment continued. In April 2004, Prowel became so unhappy with his work environment that he considered suing the company and said so to certain co-workers. Prowel subsequently was asked to meet with his supervisors and was asked about approaching those individuals regarding his proposed lawsuit. In December 2004, Prowel was terminated “for lack of work.”
Prowel then sued Wise in federal court. His claims included gender discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII. The lower court found that Prowel’s claims were based upon sexual orientation – not a viable claim under Title VII – and dismissed the suit. On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed, finding that Title VII does not bar a homosexual man from bring a gender stereotyping claim under the Act, since such a claim is “because of” the plaintiff’s sex, a type of discrimination barred by law.
The Third Circuit pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), in which a female was denied a promotion because she failed to conform to gender stereotypes. Hopkins used profanity, was not “charming,” and did not walk, talk, or dress in a feminine manner. The Supreme Court found that when an employer acts on a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, it has discriminated “because of sex” and has violated Title VII. Similarly, the evidence set forth by Prowel indicates that he was harassed and treated differently because he did not conform to his co-workers’ vision of how a man should look, speak, or act. Therefore, Prowel marshaled enough evidence to argue that his harassment was based on gender stereotypes, even if part of the harassment was based on his sexual orientation.
The line between sexual orientation discrimination and discrimination “because of sex” can be difficult to draw. Under Title VII, an unlawful employment practice is established when the plaintiff demonstrates that sex was one of the motivating factors for discrimination, even if other factors – including harassment based on sexual preference – also motivated the same actions.
Employers should be aware of this decision, and should understand that while sexual orientation is not yet included as a protected category under federal law (although it is protected under some state statutes), gender stereotyping is a very closely related cause of action. Therefore, employee complaints of harassment should not be overlooked or downplayed on the basis that they appear to involve an issue of sexual orientation. (Of course, employee complaints should never be “overlooked or downplayed” under any circumstance.) Instead, if any of the complained-of activity includes actions that are meant to punish or belittle non-compliance with gender stereotypes, the actions may constitute a violation of Title VII’s “because of sex” provision.