Historic milestones don’t occur very often, but Nov. 7 was a watershed day for people like me — lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The House of Representatives on that day passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill offering protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Currently, federal laws prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, disability, ethnicity, religion, age and pregnancy but not discrimination due to sexual orientation. It is legal in 31 states for employers to fire employees simply because they are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
I’ve been lucky. No editor has ever refused to hire or ever fired me because I’m a lesbian. But many people such as me have to hide their sexual orientation. A lesbian friend of mine, who works as a pediatric nurse in a well-regarded urban hospital, remains closeted because she fears losing her job if she “comes out.” A librarian friend of mine doesn’t disclose that he’s gay to his boss because he’s afraid that doing so might cost him a promotion.
Since 1974, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been introduced in and rejected several times by Congress. Though we’re as committed to our work as our heterosexual peers, we’ve never had the legal rights and protections that straight people in the workplace take for granted. Sixteen percent of gays and lesbians said they were denied or fired from their jobs, according to a recent study.
On Nov. 7, the House of Representatives ushered in a new era. As Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said before the House vote, “We will chart a new direction for civil rights … the Congress will act to ensure that all Americans are granted equal rights in the work place.” The House bill says that it would be illegal for employers “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual … because of such individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.” Religious groups would be exempted from the law, if it were passed.
The legislation is likely to be vetoed by President Bush and may fall short of the votes needed to override the veto. Yet, the bill has some bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate. “There is growing support in the Senate for strengthening federal laws to protect American workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement. Collins said she will be a co-sponsor when the bill is introduced in the Senate, the New York Times reported.
Opponents of the bill have argued that if it is passed, it would result in frivolous litigation. “I do not think it is the place of the federal government to legislate how each and every place of business operates,” Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said.
People opposed to civil-rights laws often make such arguments. Yet, most of us want to do our job; we don’t want to sue our employers. Discrimination complaints are time-consuming and hard to win. But, when workplace discrimination exists and all other means have failed, legal redress is the only recourse for employees.
The right to work without discrimination is a hallmark of American life.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet in Falls Church, Va. She can be reached at email@example.com.