People who believe they have been discriminated against at work because they do not conform to stereotypes of how men and women should act can file sexual discrimination lawsuits if they are harassed about it, a Missouri Court of Appeals panel ruled Tuesday.

Missouri law doesn't prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District found that discrimination based on sexual stereotypes is sexual discrimination and can be the basis for legal action.

The ruling pertains to all people but is a step toward offering LGBT Missourians some protection from discrimination or harassment in the workplace, supporters said.

"If the employer mistreats a male employee because the employer deems the employee insufficiently masculine, it is immaterial whether the male employee is gay or straight," Judge Anthony Gabbert wrote in the opinion. "The prohibition against sex discrimination extends to all employees, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation."

Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said the law will help LGBT employees fight discrimination but it also applies to straight men and women who don't conform to sexual stereotypes.

"I think it's a significant step forward not only for LGBT people but for all people in Missouri, who will now have further protection from sexual discrimination in the workplace," Rothert said.

The ruling came in a 2014 case from Cole County, where two former employees of the state's Department of Social Services sued the agency. Harold Lampley, of West Plains, a gay man, claimed that he was discriminated against because he didn't meet his bosses' stereotypes of how males should act. A co-worker, Rene Frost, claimed she was retaliated against because she associated with Lampley. They argued their treatment was based on sex, not sexual orientation.

A spokeswoman for the office of administration did not immediately return a call Wednesday.

In 2014, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights said it didn't have jurisdiction in the case because the discrimination was based on sexual orientation, rather than the sex of the plaintiffs.

The appeals court disagreed, saying the ruling "simply recognizes the manifold ways sex discrimination manifests itself."

The court ruled the human rights commission must issue right-to-sue letters so Lampley's and Frost's discrimination claims can proceed against the child support enforcement division. The commission did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday from The Associated Press.

The ruling doesn't change or affect a law passed by the Missouri Legislature this summer that requires workers claiming discrimination in wrongful-termination suits to prove that the bias was the primary reason – rather than a contributing factor – that they were fired, Rothert said.

The decision is just a "catch-up" that brings the state's definition of sex discrimination into line with federal protections that have been in place for decades, Rothert said, but LGBT employees are still in danger of discrimination in Missouri.

"If Missouri wants to be a place where large national employers and people want to bring their families, the Legislature needs to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Human Rights Act," he said. "And they need to do it soon."