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Did The Commerce Department Just Make It OK To Discriminate Against LGBTQ Workers?

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For more than six years, the LGBTQ community has been protected against discrimination in the workplace with explicit language in official stances. But on Thursday, some became concerned when a report claiming that the Commerce Department had made it OK to discriminate against LGBTQ workers began making the rounds. Even though the report ended up being a false alarm, removal of the terms "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" from this year's Commerce Department non-discrimination policy still managed to cause a stir.

Update: A Department of Commerce Spokesperson emailed Romper the following statement on Friday:

To be clear, the Department’s EEO policy statement was never intended to change the policy or exclude any protected categories. The Department of Commerce policy remains that we do not discriminate on the basis of transgender status and sexual orientation. Department employees will continue to enjoy the fullest extent of the protections of all the non-discrimination laws. EEOC has instructed federal agencies to process complaints of discrimination on the basis of transgender status and sexual orientation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and through the federal sector EEO complaint process at 29 C.F.R. Part 1614 as claims of sex discrimination. Secretary Ross has directed the Department to reissue the policy statement to address any concerns and prevent misinterpretation.

"The Department of Commerce does not tolerate behavior, harassment, discrimination or prejudice based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability," the 2017 Secretarial Policy Statement on Equal Employment Opportunity, signed by Secretary Wilbur Ross, originally read. The new policy was issued on Thursday morning.

Even though the terms "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" were not included in this year's statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce told Romper that it "was never intended to change the policy or exclude any protected categories." Rather, they stated, those employees would still be protected:

The Department of Commerce policy remains that we do not discriminate on the basis of transgender status and sexual orientation. Department employees will continue to enjoy the fullest extent of the protections of all the non-discrimination laws.

The statement added that Secretary Ross had been directed to reissue the policy statement later, to address "any concerns and prevent misinterpretation" though the language in the initial statement remains the same.

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As BuzzFeed News reported, when you look at last year’s EEO statement signed by former President Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker, you’ll see much different and more inclusive language:

The Department of Commerce does not tolerate discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination), sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age (40 years of age and over), genetic information, or disability (physical or mental), including the provision of reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants and employees with disabilities or genetic information

The Commerce Department's EEO statement from 2014 also contains the same explicit language. Another EEO statement from the Obama administration in 2010, signed by Secretary Gary Locke, also included "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" as categories that were protected from discrimination.

Whether the change in wording was mistakenly omitted, LGBTQ groups were rightfully worried about what repercussions might come from the mix-up, regardless.

"It makes LGBT people in the Commerce Department feel unwelcome, and it makes it more likely managers will make illegal mistakes," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The Washington Post. "Just taking the words off the statement doesn’t take away anybody’s rights."

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While these concerns are warranted, the new statement does not affect current protections as President Donald Trump said back in January that he would continue to uphold Obama's executive order "protecting federal employees from anti-LGBTQ discrimination that was first signed in 2014," according to CNN.

Still, excluding sexual orientation and gender identity from the policy — whether it was intentional or not — probably isn't a good move, as some might have viewed it as a careless and harmful decision.

"Cutting specific mention of sexual orientation and gender identity protections is a slap in the face to LGBTQ federal employees who proudly serve at the Department of Commerce and sadly signals that this administration does not value them," a statement issued on Thursday by the Human Rights Campaign read.

Whether the department will issue new language in the coming days or do more to quell people's fears is still up in the air.