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Marriage Equality Will Not End LGBT Discrimination

Linda Baker, foreground left, of Renton, Washington, and Kim Nuesse, right, of Kelso, Washington, join others on the Capitol steps during a rally in support of legislation to protect gay and lesbian citizens from discrimination in housing, employment, and insurance, January 23, 2006, in Olympia, Washington.

It’s June, and marriage equality is in the air. As gay and lesbian couples add to this month’s wedding celebrations, many are also paying attention to two Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality that will come down later this month. The Court’s decisions will determine a number of critically important issues for gay and lesbian Americans, such as whether they have a constitutional right to marry and whether it is discriminatory to deny federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

These decisions will receive major—and well-deserved—attention. But there is another issue involving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community that deserves attention as well. The issue concerns workplace discrimination and the fact that there still is no federal law protecting LGBT workers from being fired, harassed, or discriminated against on the job.

Because there is no federal law, it is legal in more than half the states in this country to discriminate against LGBT workers. That is wrong, and Americans know it. Nearly three in four voters support laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT workers. Their support crosses party lines, including 81 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents, and 66 percent of Republicans. And this support is not theoretical. Polls show that 90 percent of the public mistakenly believes that such a federal law is already on the books.

Sadly, it is not. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, has been introduced 19 times in Congress but lawmakers have failed to approve it. If passed and signed into law, ENDA would finally bring comprehensive employment protections to LGBT workers in all 50 states. But year after year the bill gets introduced, debated, and then shelved, never making it to the president’s desk. As a result, LGBT workers are stuck with a confusing patchwork of protections in some states but not others. Twenty-nine states have no laws at all protecting LGBT workers.

Take the case of Brooke Waits, a female worker in Dallas, Texas, who was fired after her manager spotted a cell-phone picture of Brooke and her girlfriend kissing on New Year’s Eve. Brooke said at a congressional hearing that:

I didn’t lose my job because I was lazy, incompetent, or unprofessional. Quite the contrary. I worked hard and did my job very well. However, that was all discarded when my boss discovered I am a lesbian. In a single afternoon, I went from being a highly praised employee to out of a job.

Or listen to police officer Michael Carney from Springfield, Massachusetts, who lost his job after he told his supervisors he was gay:

I’m a good cop. But I’ve lost two and a half years of employment fighting to get that job back because I’m gay. … I’m proud to be Irish-American, I’m proud to be gay, and I’m proud to be a cop in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Williams Institute at UCLA gathered survey data and found that 15 percent to 43 percent of LGBT workers experienced various forms of discrimination on the job. These workers were denied promotions, verbally or physically assaulted, forced to endure a hostile environment, fired, or refused a job in the first place. Ironically, even if the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was legal in all 50 states, LGBT workers would be able to marry the person they love, but they could still be fired in many states for displaying a picture of their family on their desk.

A new report, “A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits, and More Taxes for LGBT Workers,” spells out the myriad obstacles facing LGBT workers and makes the case for fairness and equality. “The basic American bargain is that people who work hard and meet their responsibilities should be able to get ahead,” the report says.

In an article, “Free to Work, Free to Marry,” E.J. Graff writes about the connection between workplace discrimination and marriage equality. “There’s a reason that we’ve won civil unions or marriage only in states that have first passed statewide nondiscrimination laws,” Graff says. “We only win relationship recognition when people know gay people. But too many people are afraid to come out on the job if they might lose that job for being gay.”

Graff is right. As eyes turn to the Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality this month, attention should also be focused on the Capitol, where Congress needs to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. After 19 years of talk, it’s time for action.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.