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05/13/2010

On the Eagle and an equally baldfaced American group

by Jeremy Hooper

American Eagle, per their own comments, never wanted to discriminate again transgender employees. Their employment policies just needed a little updating on a paper level, so that "personal appearance" standards would not show unfair bias against T employees. When pressed by a community group and New York state AG Andrew Cuomo to update the policy, American Eagle complied "with the understanding that AEO is not admitting to the findings," and with a stated commitment to transgender equality. We have no reason to doubt this. (*Read the story here.)

Yet despite the mall retailer not seeing itself as either the corporate victim of "the LGBT agenda" or the caloric victim of its regular placement near an Auntie Anne's pretzel shop, the Family Research Council, as part of never-dying quest to rob LGBT workers of employment protections on a federal level, is determined to turn AE into one of its latest martyrs. This from an FRC press release:

"Every American who believes in the right of employers to set dress and grooming standards for their employees should be alarmed by how this attorney general has used bullying tactics and litigation to impose cross-dressing policies on American Eagle Outfitters.

Wu10E09 Normal-1"What's most alarming is that President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress want to expand these bullying litigation tactics to all 50 states by enacting into federal law a cross-dressing protection act. If Congress approves President Obama's ENDA bill, employers in every state can expect to experience the same expensive, burdensome litigation that has been pursued against American Eagle Outfitters.

"ENDA, what might be more appropriately called 'The Cross-Dresser Protection Act,' takes the bedroom into the workplace and unfairly burdens employers to know about their employee's sexual lives. This major expansion of federal power over the workplace places an unnecessary burden on small businesses and local communities.

"Family Research Council and the families we represent are committed to defeating this bill which will trample on the Constitutional freedoms of religion and speech of both employers and employees.
"
FRC: New York AG's Cross-Dressing Lawsuit Violates the Rights of Employers and Employees [PR NewsWire]

And on a subsequent web posting, FRC asks the unfashionable question:

In the name of tolerance, American Eagle has been forced to take on a sales liability to satisfy the PC brigade. Shouldn't employers have the freedom to impose a dress code as they see fit? [Source]

Okay, first off: Policies like this change nothing about dress code. All employees are surely required to follow whatever standard the organization sets for itself. However, that compliance comes within the confines of gender identity accommodations. So yes, an employer like AE is 100% allowed to say, "you can wear this or this or this," based on whatever criteria meets their desired image. They are not, however, allowed under NY state law to say that those clothing options are bound in the kind of narrow, "pink is for girls, blue is for boys" parameters that prevent certain kinds of employees from obtaining/maintaining employment. They just aren't. As long as all of the other qualifications for employment are met (which can very well include other appearance factors), then gender identity bias cannot be a factor. Here in NY state (and especially NYC), such protections are highly valued!

But again, the thing here: The teen-trending clothing retailer isn't even seeking the right to do that! FRC is projecting its own mission upon the company, as if the latter is a mannequin and the former is the latest graphic tee (with the graphic looking suspiciously like Anita Bryant's face). It's offensive to LGBT workers, to New Yorkers and their elected officials, to American Eagle. So in short: It's just another day at the office for the esteemed Le Conseil de Recherche de famille.

***

**UPDATE: AEO gives us this statement:

American Eagle Outfitters is a progressive organization that embraces and includes all types of diversity—whether it be race, sexual preference, gender or gender identity. We wholeheartedly believe that transgender individuals should be treated equally.

We receive hundreds of applications from prospective employees each week, most of which are never offered employment. We would have welcomed the opportunity to provide more information on why the testers who allegedly applied for jobs were not hired, but we were not given those details.

In an effort to avoid further expense and the distraction of a prolonged argument, American Eagle Outfitters has agreed to a compromise settlement in this case, with the understanding that AEO is not admitting to the findings. We would rather focus on our business and customers.

AEO offers same sex benefits, including health care coverage, relocation support, employee discounts, family leave and even adoption assistance. Our company policies have long included sexual orientation as a protected class, and we prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation.

We revised our company-wide policies to reflect our commitment to providing equal employment opportunity on the basis of gender identity and expression. We were already in the process of updating our Personal Appearance Standards and rolling it out to the entire company. AEO’s current PAS policy is fully compliant with the law and does not reference gender appropriate clothing. Finally, we have instituted formal training and education programs for associates company-wide regarding our commitment to equal opportunity employment regardless of gender identity and expression.

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