The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, is the little engine that could — chugging its way through Congress since the mid-1990s. ENDA seeks to ban employment discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. However, despite repeat introductions to Congress, ENDA has never been formally invited to the dance and remains a civil rights dream.
I moved to Pennsylvania two years ago. Until now, I have never lived in a state without employment non-discrimination protections. Yet, I am not the only one living without protection. In addition to Pennsylvania, the Center for American Progress notes that LGBTQ individuals in 20 states in the Union lack employment discrimination protection; which translates into a whopping 71 percent of U.S. territory where it is legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy found that up to 43 percent of gay people reported experiencing some form of discrimination and harassment at work. A Harvard University study found that resumes listing “gay” activities were 40 percent less likely to get a call back from employers than those resumes without LGBTQ specific activities.
The Williams Institute notes that families of gay and lesbian couples are much more likely to be poor than heterosexual families. As an already economically vulnerable population, protection against employment discrimination is even more crucial.
Conservative and religious groups fear that the passage of ENDA will bring the bedroom into the boardroom, allowing LGBTQ people to “parade their proclivities in the workplace.” The conservative Christian organization, the Family Research Council, believes that under ENDA “biblical morality becomes illegal.” In response, I question the morality of discrimination condoned by ENDA. ENDA’s religious exemption actually allows religious organizations the legal right to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Accounts of such discrimination against LGBTQ persons across the United States have been recorded that illustrate the real dangers of living without protection against employment discrimination. Sarah Blanchette, of New Hampshire, a state without ENDA protections, knows better than anyone the impact of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
In 2004, Blanchette was a computer programmer for a small religious college in Manchester. She was fired after she informed the school that she planned to begin presenting herself as female. The school dismissed her with the following: “As you know, you recently disclosed to senior college administration your transsexual status. Upon consideration, you are immediately relieved of your duties…” The legal organization Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders took her case to court and in 2006, the school settled.
Shari Hutchinson, of Ohio, another state without ENDA protections, has also experienced employment discrimination. An experienced private sector management professional and “out” lesbian, Hutchinson was repeatedly passed over for promotions in which she was clearly the most qualified candidate. In 2011, after taking her case to court, a judge granted her a significant settlement.
Hutchinson and Blanchette, however, were lucky. Highly educated, with post-secondary degrees and steady pay checks, they had the wherewithal and resources to pursue their cases in court. Not all LGBTQ persons have that privilege.
Jake, a gay auto parts worker who also lives in Ohio, frequently takes his lunch break alone in his car, fearing that he might accidentally reveal his sexuality to his co-workers. He worries that disclosing his sexuality might create a hostile work environment and he would lose his job. Without employment laws protecting him, Jake would have no legal recourse.
It is clearly insufficient to attack ENDA in a piecemeal fashion. A broader federal statute to protect against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is vital.
Two weeks ago, on July 10, with bipartisan support, the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee voted to pass ENDA. Its fate is now in the full Senate’s hands. It is more than past time to pick ENDA off the Senate floor and into the arms of those who most need protection.
Arianna Zeno is a rising third-year masters candidate in the School of Social Policy & Practice from Los Angeles, Calif. Her email address is email@example.com.
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