Four years ago this week, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Now we need to build on that to prevent ongoing discrimination.
The hate-crimes law was the first to recognize bias crimes that targeted people because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, gender or disability status. That was a big step forward.
Now we need to take the next step: Congress should pass a law granting lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people the same access to job opportunities as anyone else. It should finally pass ENDA: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
When Congress passed the hate crimes act in 2009, it was after more than a decade of advocacy since the bill's introduction. ENDA has seen an even lengthier battle, having been first introduced almost 20 years ago. It would provide LGBT workers with basic protections against workplace discrimination nationwide, something that most Americans agree with, regardless of race, geography or political party.
In 29 states, you can be fired simply for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That is grossly unfair.
That's why the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has joined almost 90 other organizations -- including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice -- to urge Congress to pass ENDA as soon possible.
We are not alone. A coalition of businesses has also endorsed this same position.
In a letter to Congress, the Whirlpool Corporation said that ENDA "embodies the principle of nondiscrimination that already enjoys the wide support of the American people. It has been the law of the land that employment discrimination is unacceptable based on race, gender, religion, ethnic origin or other nonperformance-related considerations. It is time to include sexual orientation and gender identity."
Almost 40 percent of out gay and lesbian workers and 78 percent of transgender workers face harassment or job loss in the workplace. This discrimination leads to greater poverty and unemployment, two pervasive problems that racial and ethnic minorities been combating for generations. And these problems are compounded for the 33 percent of LGBT workers who are people of color.
This needs to change.
Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, knows firsthand how legislation can send the message that "a civilized nation gives all its citizens equal rights and treats everyone with respect and dignity." Invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr., she wrote, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."
I urge you, as a friend of an LGBT person or just as a decent American who believes in fairness, to contact your legislators and demand that they pass ENDA and end this blatant discrimination.
Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights organizations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright Wade Henderson.
Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, creative commons licensed.