By Ashland Johnson, Esq.
NCLR Policy Counsel
The envelope came early in the morning, but it wasn’t until late afternoon that I had the energy to open it. I had been in the intensive care unit for three days with a potentially fatal condition. When I saw the envelope from my employers, a university in Georgia, I automatically assumed it was the standard “get well” card. But instead of offering good wishes and prayers, this letter informed me that I was being fired from the job I’d held for over a year.
While I was shocked by the timing, ever since I had refused to sign a letter of “voluntary” resignation after my supervisor found out that I’m a lesbian, I had suspected and feared this would happen. After repeatedly being locked out of my office, left out of department meetings, and ignored by administrative officials, I was fired without any consideration of my value as an employee or my rights as an individual.
For over a month before my termination, I researched my options, tried to file a complaint based on the university’s nondiscrimination policy, and compiled evidence to support my case against my supervisor. I also requested meetings with human resources and wrote countless letters to school officials. Despite my efforts, I was simply redirected and ignored.
Since the university was no help, I decided to research my legal rights. I was surprised to discover that I essentially had no legal protections from this type of discrimination. Georgia had no state law protecting workers against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Further, because the university had adopted its nondiscrimination policy voluntarily, it was not legally obligated to comply with it. The city I where I worked had a local nondiscrimination law, but the commission tasked with enforcing the local code was underfunded, under-resourced, and had little ability to create and enforce penalties. In short, I was shocked to discover that I had no viable legal options: I had been fired for being a lesbian, and the law provided no real protection whatsoever.
Six years later, nothing has changed. Georgia still has no state law protecting LGBT workers, and, shamefully, specific federal protections against this type of discrimination still do not exist. But today, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) approved a bill that could change this, and that is now on its way to the Senate for a vote. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) would federally prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. This law is much needed and long overdue. Recent studies show that LGBT workers continue to face high rates of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Today, in 29 states LGBT people can be fired because they’re lesbian, gay or bisexual; in 34 states, people can be fired just because they’re transgender. A June 2012 report by the Williams Institute shows that 12 percent of the respondents have lost their job because of their sexual orientation. The incidence of discrimination faced by transgender workers is even higher. In a groundbreaking study released in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 90 percent of respondents reported having experienced harassment or mistreatment at work and 47 percent reported having been discriminated against in hiring, promotion, or job retention because of their gender identity. Discrimination against LGBT workers is irrational, debilitating, and unfair. It devastates LGBT individuals and their families, jeopardizes our economic security, and undermines LGBT equality.
LGBT people and their families need ENDA now more than ever to ensure that all employees are free from unfair discrimination at work. Everyone deserves the opportunity to work and thrive in any profession they choose, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The passage of an inclusive ENDA will help make this a reality.
NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office:415.365.1324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org