Friends of the Court: Landmark Decisions on Same-Sex Sexual Harassment and Marriage Side in Gays' Favor

By Gallagher, John | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), March 31, 1998 | Go to article overview

Friends of the Court: Landmark Decisions on Same-Sex Sexual Harassment and Marriage Side in Gays' Favor


Gallagher, John, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Landmark decisions on same-sex sexual harassment and marriage side in gay's favor

Judges can be the best friends gay men and lesbians have. Two recent landmark decisions hailed by activists have made for a safer workplace and removed another hurdle on the road to legalized same-sex marriage.

On March 4 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that federal law prohibiting sexual harassment covers same-sex cases. In a decision written by conservative justice Antonin Scalia, the court said that "behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment" constituted harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no matter what the sex of the harasser. The ruling came in the case of Joseph Oncale, a straight oil-rig worker who charged that he was sexually assaulted and threatened with rape by male supervisors and coworkers. An appeals court had rejected the claim on the grounds that same-sex sexual harassment was not covered under federal law. The Supreme Court ruling revives Oncale's claim and sends the case back to a district court for trial.

Gay activists said the case was important because it effectively included gay men and lesbians among those protected against workplace harassment. "This is a resounding statement that sexual-harassment laws mean what they say and that lower courts cannot artificially carve out exceptions--even in a same-sex context," said Kevin M. Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. …

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