This week, the EEOC filed its first two federal lawsuits that frame allegations of sexual orientation-based harassment and discrimination as claims of unlawful “sex discrimination” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In EEOC v. Pallet Companies the EEOC alleges that an employee’s night-shift manager harassed her because of her sexual orientation by making repeated offensive comments (sometimes accompanied by sexually suggestive gestures), such as “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “I want you to like men again.”  According to the Complaint, the employee was discharged after she complained about her manager’s comments to another supervisor and the Human Resources department.  The EEOC makes similar allegations in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center.  There, a supervisor allegedly harassed an employee by making repeated anti-gay comments and vulgar statements about the employee’s sexual orientation.  The employee claims that he was constructively discharged after the company refused to take any corrective action in response to his complaints.

In both lawsuits, the EEOC articulates three legal theories in support of its claim that the alleged sexual orientation harassment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII.  First, sexual orientation discrimination “necessarily entails” treating an employee less favorably due to his or her sex and, therefore, the employee’s gender unlawfully motivated the alleged harassment.  Second, the alleged harassment stemmed from the employee’s failure to conform to the harasser’s “sex stereotypes and norms.”  Third, the harasser displayed both general objections to the idea of individuals having romantic associations with others of the same sex, as well as a specific objection to the employee’s close, loving association with a same-sex partner.

Although these are the first lawsuits the EEOC has filed on the grounds of sexual orientation discrimination as “sex discrimination” under Title VII, the agency has actually raised these same three legal theories before.  In July 2015, the EEOC issued Baldwin v. Department of Transportation, an agency determination concluding that allegations of sexual orientation discrimination necessarily state a claim of unlawful sex discrimination because (1) the alleged discrimination would not have occurred but for the employee’s sex, (2) the challenged treatment was based on the sex of the people the employee associates with, and/or (3) the alleged conduct was premised on the fundamental “sex stereotype, norm, or expectation that individuals should be attracted only to those of the opposite sex.”

The EEOC’s new lawsuits attacking sexual orientation discrimination represent just one facet of the agency’s recent efforts to address emerging and developing issues – one of the six national priorities identified in its Strategic Enforcement Plan for fiscal years 2013 to 2016.  In addition to focusing on sexual orientation discrimination, the EEOC also recently filed federal lawsuits alleging unlawful sex discrimination against transgender individuals.  As the EEOC intensifies this focus, employers should review their antidiscrimination policies to determine whether LGBT employees have the same protections as employees in other protected categories, and should consider expanding their training programs to ensure they encompass issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender discrimination.  Employers should also remain mindful of state and local legislation that has increasingly expanded to prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in employment.