It's time to focus on ENDA

  • by Gabriel Haaland and Donna Cartwright
  • Wednesday May 1, 2013
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Gabriel Haaland
Gabriel Haaland

Last week, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, was re-introduced with bipartisan support by Representative Jared Polis (D-Colorado) in the House and Senator Jeff Merkely (D-Oregon) in the Senate. The legislation, despite the religious exemption, deserves the full weight of our community's support. Employers in over 20 states still have the legal right to fire a worker based on sexual orientation or gender identity, despite the fact that public polling shows that over a majority of Americans believe that the LGBT community deserves workplace protections.

Transgender workers have made considerable progress in the courts and administrative agencies in recent years, including last year's historic ruling by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Macy v. Holder, that the sex discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect transgender people. Nevertheless, transgender Americans, like their gay, lesbian, and bisexual counterparts, still remain very vulnerable to workplace discrimination. The EEOC decision was an administrative ruling and could be overturned or reversed by the federal courts or by a less-friendly White House.

Many in the transgender community still remember that a mere six years ago when the United States House of Representatives took up ENDA, the bill's chief sponsor, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, said that many legislators were balking at including the gender identity provision, and that, with the agreement of House leaders, he was therefore going to drop it. Unfortunately, the largest gay player on Capitol Hill, the Human Rights Campaign, went back on previous assurances to the transgender community that it would stand by us, and tacitly agreed to the removal of the gender identity protections.

For months, activists protested HRC fundraising dinners across the country, and in July, 2008, an LGBT labor group, San Francisco Pride at Work, organized one of the largest boycotts/protests ever assembled outside an HRC function. Dozens of local organizations and elected officials endorsed the boycott, including the San Francisco Labor Council and the San Francisco Democratic Party; no elected officials in San Francisco attended the dinner. Even the mayor of Los Angeles, the scheduled speaker, wouldn't cross the Labor Council-endorsed picket line. Hundreds of activists picketed in front of the dinner, and after the dinner started, they filled the streets dancing, in what was called the "Left-Out Party."

The move by the House leadership and HRC risked leaving a large part of the LGBT community vulnerable to gender discrimination in employment, and implied that, while discrimination based on sexual orientation was unacceptable, bias and intolerance based on gender identity or expression were negotiable. While HRC is under new leadership, this history remains fresh in our minds as this new effort begins.

Donna Cartwright

Moreover, we remain concerned that efforts to pass ENDA have lost steam since the 2007 controversy. HRC has made only a lackluster effort on ENDA in the last five years. The emphasis in Congress has shifted away from issues of primary concern to working-class LGBT people. Instead, repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and other marriage-oriented measures have been the main priority of the well-heeled in our community. While marriage is important to our community, the nearly exclusive focus on it at the expense of workplace protection " an issue that is perhaps more relevant to those who are more on the economic fringes " seems to indicate a certain elitism.

The LGBT movement has built strong relationships with many progressive allies, including large parts of the labor movement. Let's use those ties to respond to the economic crisis of the last half decade, and protect the right of working-class queers to earn a livelihood. It's time to put the focus back where it belongs " on ENDA.


Gabriel Haaland is co-vice president of Pride at Work. Donna Cartwright, former co-president of the group, now serves on its national executive board. Cartwright and Haaland are co-chairs of its transgender caucus.