Out lesbian Chai Feldblum says she makes her mark through experience
by Josef Molnar
Chai Feldblum had just finished a training class at the Houston Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office in downtown Houston and was speaking with an attendee when I arrived for our interview. As a commissioner at one of the most influential federal departments, Feldblum spends much of her time visiting EEOC field offices to keep them updated about changes in employment law and to settle questions about how to interpret existing laws. Naturally, her tireless work for the rights of employees with HIV and AIDS is evident in her training sessions.
“I am talking about disabilities, in which case I’m always talking about HIV infection,” Feldblum says, “so they know that that’s covered, but mostly I’m out there training people about new regulations.”
But her message doesn’t end there. She also happens to be an out lesbian, a fact that seamlessly integrates itself into the patchwork quilt of her life. As the daughter of two conservative Jewish scholars (her father survived the Holocaust) who grew up in Manhattan’s poor Washington Heights neighborhood, Feldblum understands the employment issues facing religious minorities, poor working Americans, women, and gay people. And as a professor at Georgetown University, she is passing on that knowledge to the next generation of gay and lesbian lawyers.
“People make a big deal of the fact that maybe I was the first out lesbian commissioner,” she says, “but I actually think I might have more impact on the agency because I’m the first out administrative law professor now serving as a commissioner. I really care about carrying out the agency’s role properly.”
Feldblum is the kind of person one would expect to see at the center of an effusive social debate: she’s intelligent, energetic, and wiry, with a penchant for witty remarks. Her precise, rapid speech, punctuated with open gestures and animated expressions, displays an unexpected passion for someone who has been practicing law for 25 years. Her many years on Capitol Hill and as an advocate for the rights of employees, women, and those with HIV and AIDS have also prepared her well for her current EEOC role.
Feldblum assumed that her involvement in writing the Americans with Disabilities Act in the early 1990s—as well as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is being considered in Congress and in part secures employment rights based on sexual orientation and gender status—might be more conspicuous in light of the Obama administration’s two dozen other openly gay appointees from 2010. However, it was her appointment to the traditionally conservative EEOC that made the biggest impact.
“I was number 23, but I was the only one of these appointees who not only was openly gay, but who had actually written about gay rights and spoken about gay rights,” she said.
Feldblum admits that although she wants to be thought of as a commissioner who happens to be gay, her out status has affected the culture of the EEOC.
“To be out and open—that, I think, has its ramifications in terms of both normalizing an issue for people that may not feel normal to some, and personalizing the issue in a way that we all know in the gay community,” she says. “When you know someone who’s gay, that makes it easier to understand if your civil rights are being violated.”
Malihe Kigasari, an openly gay federal investigator at the EEOC’s San Francisco district office, described Feldblum’s presence on the commission’s board as a “tectonic shift” in the attention that LGBT employment issues have gained.
“President Obama sent a message to all employers and employees that he’s serious about making the American workplace a place of equal employment opportunity for all,” Kigasari said. “By bringing the LGBT community under the umbrella for all shows he is about action, and not just talk. It has a psychological and catalytic effect on the way employers and employees may behave when it comes to workplace discrimination.”
Kigasari believes that Feldblum’s presence on the commission even helped some of her fellow coworkers to come out.
“This office is conservative, as far as workplaces go,” Kigasari said. “There were other LGBT coworkers here when I came here, but they were not out. But now they are out, and her coming out is responsible for that progress and the movement towards equality here.”
While many might expect her to use her influence to change the EEOC’s policies in favor of LGBT people, Feldblum is quick to point out that her record proves otherwise.
“Now that I’ve been here for a year and a month, I can tell you in practice it is not how I have acted and how I have voted on things,” she says. “I would say that it was incredibly natural [for me to assume the role] of a commissioner who is obliged by the Constitution to carry out the words of Congress, not to carry out my own personal policy preferences.”
However, she sees areas where gay employees already have protections under the current law. During the interview, she repeatedly referred to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
“I’m training these people to [handle those LGBT discrimination cases so that] if someone comes in, they shouldn’t think just because they are gay doesn’t mean they’re not covered,” she says. “No, you’re not covered for discrimination just based on sexual orientation, but you’re covered [if your employer is engaging in] gender stereotypes and you’re discriminated against or harassed on that basis.”
In a recent case, Feldblum said a straight man was harassed because of his effeminate behavior; the commission brought the case to court and won a settlement for the man. And in 1998, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the unanimous court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services that discrimination based on gender stereotyping was covered by Title VII.
“No matter what the job is, it’s covered,” Feldblum says. “It doesn’t matter that the person is also gay, and that Title VII doesn’t directly cover sexual orientation.”
Likewise, transgender individuals who have been wrongfully terminated may have a case for employment discrimination in certain situations. “If you’re ready to hire David and she converts to be Diane, and now you’re not ready to hire her, [that’s not legal],” Feldblum says. “There are courts that have now said that’s discrimination based on sex.”
She hopes the ENDA legislation will soon make its way from Congress to the Oval Office and become an active law, so that another of her “children” will be born.
“I often say, ‘I don’t have kids, I have laws,’” she says with a laugh. “People can say, ‘Oh look, it’s a law!’ instead of, ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl!’”
On the Web: www.eeoc.gov
Chai Feldblum biography: www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/commission.cfm
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. • Most employers with at least 15 employees are covered by EEOC laws (20 employees in age discrimination cases). Most labor unions and employment agencies are also covered. • The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits.
SEC. 2000e-2. [Section 703] of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
(a) Employer practices
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer—
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
(b) Employment agency practices
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Josef Molnar is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.