“One day I got sick and ended up being in the ICU for a week, and I let my employers know. They didn’t contact me to let me know anything else except for a week later, they FedEx’d me a termination letter.” – Ashland Johnson
Going to the hospital can be a stressful time for anyone. Whether the stress is due to an all-too-common fear of costly emergency room bills or due to the possibility of surgery, entering the hospital can be an uncertain time for anyone. For Ashland Johnson, however, the termination letter her employer sent while Ashland was in the Intensive Care Unit compounded her stress. Every day, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, individuals are discriminated against in the workplace solely due to their sexual orientation and gender identity and are denied the protection of federal law. That must change now.
The story of Ashland Johnson
In Johnson’s personal video below, she recounts experiences when her employer expressed disapproval of her sexual orientation. Despite receiving positive reviews throughout her tenure, her employer’s views ultimately led to Johnson’s termination, while she was lying in a hospital bed. Like many other LGBT workers, Johnson believed she was protected under federal law but suddenly realized she had no legal recourse. According to Johnson:
Finding out there was nothing I could do just surprised me. … I think a lot of times people look at internal policies and think that is enough, but it took that experience for me to realize that policies don’t mean anything unless someone is willing to enforce them.
During this eighth and final installment of the Workplace Discrimination Series, watch Johnson’s full narration below.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, as well as local, state, and federal governments and agencies; religious organizations and the U.S. military are exempted. The bill prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the hiring, firing, and promoting of its employees. ENDA has been introduced in every Congress since 1994 except one. In 1996, it came just one vote shy of passage; at the same time, anti-LGBT legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, passed both houses of Congress with wide margins. Ever since 1996, ENDA has not been given a full Senate vote, which could all change this week.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) formally announced his plans to bring ENDA to the floor during the current work period, which ends the week before Thanksgiving. Although it has yet to be seen what will happen in the House, this is a watershed moment for the LGBT community. For the first time in nearly 17 years, members of Congress will debate, on the Senate floor, whether LGBT workers should receive explicit workplace protections. While this moment should be celebrated now more than ever, the momentum for federal workplace protections for LGBT workers must continue. Without ENDA, it is more difficult for the LGBT community to build a prosperous life for themselves and their families.
As with all Senate legislation, ENDA will require a cloture vote of 60 votes before it can pass; the votes are almost there, with several new endorsements. Early last week, three Democratic senators were not signed on as co-sponsors: Sens. Mark Pryor (D-AK), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV). Soon thereafter, however, all three agreed to support ENDA, making all 54 Democratic Caucus members set to vote for ENDA once it is brought to the Senate floor. Today, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) agreed to support ENDA, officially securing a supermajority of the U.S. Senate.
ENDA is necessary for LGBT workers
In our Workplace Discrimination Series launched this past summer, LGBT workers have given first-hand accounts of their experiences with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. These workers were ostracized, verbally and sexually harassed, and subjected to physical violence simply for identifying as LGBT. ENDA protects these vulnerable workers from LGBT-based workplace discrimination.
Whether the LGBT worker is Kylar Broadus, Mia Macy, or Sam Hall, ENDA is necessary to the lives and financial security of LGBT people throughout the country. Broadus faced harassment from his supervisor and colleagues, including offensive remarks, unreasonable demands, and restrictions on his gender identity such as using the bathroom of his choice. Macy was told that her job was unavailable after her background check was complete and she had already uprooted her life, moving from Phoenix to San Francisco. Hall was physically and verbally tormented by his colleagues at a coal mine in West Virginia for identifying as gay. If ENDA were enacted, these workers—and so many more—would have their jobs protected and their freedom to work upheld. This is why it is vital for Congress to pass ENDA now.
Make no mistake, there is no federal law that explicitly and comprehensively protects LGBT workers from workplace discrimination; most employers have free range to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In a recent poll, however, 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe that there is already a federal law that prevents an employer from firing, refusing to hire, or refusing to promote someone because they are LGBT. In fact, only 21 states and Washington, D.C., disallow discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a mere 17 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
Because of the inconsistent patchwork of state laws, some LGBT people are protected, while others are left economically vulnerable. Deeply entrenched homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic viewpoints, coupled with the lack of anti-discrimination policies on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, subject many LGBT workers to violations of civil rights and liberties. ENDA could change this. ENDA is necessary to provide comprehensive and explicit protections for LGBT workers. The LGBT community simply wants a fair chance to exhibit their qualifications and to build a successful life for themselves and their families.
Democrats, independents, and Republicans, and the majority of Christian denominations broadly and publicly support ENDA. Despite this, Congress has yet to provide federal protections for LGBT workers, which places an insurmountable burden on these workers and their families. For this reason and for many others, Congress must pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Preston Mitchum is a Policy Analyst with the FIRE Initiative at the Center for American Progress, which works to eliminate the social, economic, and health disparities faced by LGBT people of color. He would like to thank Andrew Satter and Mira Barnum for filming and editing the video.