Head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice Thomas E. Perez recently testified before a Senate Committee in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), whose lead sponsors are Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME). In his testimony, Perez, presumably intentionally, sent a clear signal to LGBT rights advocates about President Obama’s feelings on the subject, testifying for the record that “The Administration strongly supports fully inclusive legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity." Perez went on to elaborate: “On an issue of basic equality and fundamental fairness for all Americans, we cannot in good conscience stand by and watch unjustifiable discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals occur in the work- place without redress."
ENDA was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 24 of this year by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA). If it passes, it will become the first piece of federal legislation to prohibit employment discrimination, preferential treatment and retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by employers with 15 or more employees.
Current federal law protects against employ- ment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, age and disability, leaving lesbians, gay men, transsexuals, bisexuals and gender dysphoric individuals with absolutely no legal strategy to deal with even the most egregious cases of harassment and abuse from fellow coworkers or from management. Similarly, current federal law gives LGBT citizens no recourse whatsoever against unwarranted layoffs or termination motivated by bigotry.
Although some states have individually addressed discrimination against LGBT people in the workforce and although some dis- crete groups of LGBT workers—notably, city, state or federal employees—are partially shielded against some cases of employment discrimination in some locales, 29 states— including New York—still offer no protection to lesbian, bisexual and gay employees, while in 38 states employers can legally fire someone for being transgender.
Despite false claims to the contrary by anti-gay opponents, ENDA wouldn’t give gay workers “special” rights, just the same rights as our fellow citizens. Specifically, ENDA protects anyone, whether a part of the LGBT community or just perceived to be so, from being subject to the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of workplace harrassment, discrimination and unwarranted termination that LGBT working Americans experience every single workday by extending them the kinds of employment discrimination protections other Americans take for granted. Namely, it would prohibit public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, promotion or compensation and would provide similar (though slightly more limited) recourse to LGBT Americans who are victims of workplace bigotry.
Despite its premise, support for ENDA is not absolute, though it has slowly gained more allies in the past months. On September 23, the House Education and Labor Committee chaired the first full committee meeting to dis- cuss ENDA. As of this writing ENDA sponsors and allies are still working to marshal enough votes to make the measure a reality.