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This Time, Equal Rights for All

LGBT people still aren’t protected from workplace discrimination, but a bill under consideration could change that.
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ENDA demonstrators, photo by M.V. Jantzen

This week, people around the world and across the country are gathering in support of equal rights for all.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

Today, the International Day Against Homophobia, people around the globe are rallying in support of LGBT rights and acceptance. It is a day to acknowledge the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk to love and live openly; to be safe, protected from violence and discrimination; to have access to quality health care and education; and to build families and legally marry. 

Here in the United States, this day also kicks off a week of actions urging Congress to pass H.R. 3017, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) of 2009. This bill would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A coalition of LGBT and ally organizations is calling for all supporters of equal rights to lobby their elected officials, raise awareness about ENDA, and help push Congress to enact basic employment protections for all.

Workplace discrimination

With no federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination, people in our country lose their jobs every day for being gay or transgender. Organizations working to pass ENDA have been collecting people’s stories of on-the-job discrimination: Thomas Bryant was fired in Indiana after he went to Human Resources to solicit help about a coworker haranguing him with homophobic epithets. And Brooke Waits lost her job in Texas the day after her boss opened her cell phone and saw a picture of Waits sharing a New Year’s kiss with her partner. 

The importance of enacting laws to protect transgender employees is highlighted in a 2009 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The study found that the rate of unemployment among transgender communities is twice that of the nation as a whole, which is especially debilitating in these economically challenging times. Additionally, a whopping 97 percent of the 6,450 respondents say they experience harassment or mistreatment on the job because of their gender identity.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Subsequent legislation has extended protections to guard against discrimination based on disability and age. If passed, ENDA would institute much needed basic protection for LGBT employees.

A federal fix?

Public opinion, and even corporate employment policy, has become much more inclusive than federal law in recent years. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that 89 percent of Americans believe gay people should have “equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” And as of September 2009, 87 percent of the Fortune 500 companies had implemented non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Protection for transgender employees, however, lags behind—just 41 percent of Fortune 500 companies include gender identity in their non-discrimination policies.
In the absence of federal policy, it has been left up to each state to decide how to approach protection for the LGBT workforce. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation; Minnesota was the first to ban discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, in 1993.

LGBT-rights organizers have been working hard in recent years to ensure transgender people are not excluded from ENDA again. So far, at least publicly, the issue is non-negotiable.

Several states have since adopted LGBT-inclusive employment policies. But being gay or transgender continues to be a job hazard: Workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is currently legal in 29 states, while firing or harassing employees because of their gender identity is legal in 38 states.

Activists and lawmakers have been working to pass basic federal employment protection for LGBT folk for almost 40 years. The first version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was introduced in 1994 and has been introduced in all but one Congress since then.

This year, though, ENDA has a fighting chance. With ongoing organizing efforts from advocacy organizations, support from Democratic leadership, and 202 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, supporters are hopeful that ENDA could make it to President Obama’s desk during this session. As a supporter of ENDA, he would most assuredly sign it into law. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), sponsor of the current version of ENDA and one of three openly gay members of Congress, set an optimistic tone in late April when he told supporters, “The Speaker has promised we will get this done fairly quickly.”

Since then, however, public predictions of a quick vote have stopped. And time is running short for this legislative session. Although a vote in the House of Representatives has been expected for weeks, none has yet been scheduled. ENDA is still under review by the House Education and Labor Committee.

“We’re pushing really hard to bring the bill to a vote,” said Lisa Mottet, Transgender Civil Rights Project Director for the Task Force. “Time is running out and we’re very concerned that if ENDA doesn’t become law this year, it will be another several years before it has a chance.”

Rights for all, not just some

The last time ENDA was up for a vote, in 2007, gender identity was dropped from the bill. Frank, also a bill sponsor at that time, removed transgender protections in an attempt to pass a watered-down version. Not only did this action leave many in the LGBT community feeling betrayed, it wasn’t successful. A non-inclusive version of ENDA passed through the House, but it died on the Senate floor.

Now, with conflicting reports on whether or not a whip count has been completed and whether or not there are enough votes to pass ENDA untarnished, rumors are flying that gender identity may be dropped from the bill again. Some members of Congress have been quoted saying that prohibiting gender identity discrimination “goes too far” and opponents of the bill are gearing up for a fight.

So far, at least publicly, the issue is non-negotiable. Frank continues to assert that gender identity will not be dropped again.

LGBT-rights organizers have been working hard in recent years to ensure transgender people are not excluded from ENDA again. When gender identity was removed in 2007, hundreds of organizations—national, state, and local—rallied together to advocate for an inclusive version of the bill. And those who signed the following letter became the first members of United ENDA, a coalition working to win workplace protection for the entire LGBT community:

The undersigned represent the vast and celebrated diversity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in this country … We are united in a common cause: We ask you to keep working with us on an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that protects everyone in our community, and to oppose any substitute legislation that leaves some of us behind.

United ENDA now has over 400 member organizations, including local grassroots groups, labor coalitions, and national advocacy organizations. And the commitment to oppose legislation that “leaves some of us behind” has stayed strong over the past three years. The groups have been lobbying Congress, sharing stories that exemplify the discrimination LGBT workers face, phone banking, and working with local and supportive media outlets to raise awareness and increase pressure on Congress. United ENDA is even organizing the “I Want to Work!” campaign, calling on LGBT people to apply for jobs with their Congressional offices. Mottet, among others, is confident that these efforts are working. “We have the votes to keep gender identity in.”

This week—starting today with the International Day Against Homophobia and ending in celebration of Harvey Milk Day on Saturday—people around the world and across the country are gathering in support of equal rights. Not equal rights for some, but equal rights for all. 


Sara Knight, author picSara Knight wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sara is a YES! Magazine media and outreach intern.

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