For the first time in three years, a Senate committee heard testimony on legislation to protect LGBT workers. But there’s been no commitment from Democratic leadership on when or if the long-pending bill might be marked up for a vote.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been introduced and re-introduced in Congress since 1994. In its earliest form, the legislation sought to ban bias in the workplace based on sexual orientation. The current bill also would ban bias based on gender identity.
On June 12 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held its first hearing on ENDA in three years.
“It’s time to make clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are first-class citizens,” said committee chairman Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa. “They are full and welcome members of our American family and they deserve the same civil rights protections as all other Americans.”
Five witnesses delivered testimony – M.V. Lee Badgett, Kylar W. Broadus, Ken Charles and Samuel R. Bagenstos spoke in support of ENDA and Craig Parshal spoke in opposition.
Badgett works at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She testified to decades of research documenting the discrimination LGBT people face in the workplace, and she offered evidence that ENDA would diminish that discrimination.
“Our nation’s employers and employees would be better off with an LGBT workforce that no longer fears discrimination,” she said. “The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would benefit both employees and employers.”
Twenty-nine states lack laws banning bias based on sexual orientation, and 34 states lack protections for transgender workers.
“It is imperative that Congress pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so that transgender people like me are able to live our lives and provide for our families without fear of discrimination,” said Broadus, founder of the Missouri-based Trans People of Color Coalition and now the first openly transgender person to testify before a Senate committee.
Broadus, a lawyer and professor, told senators that he was “constructively discharged” about six months after coming out about his gender transition at work 20 years ago.
He testified: “While my supervisors could tolerate a somewhat masculine-appearing black woman, they were not prepared to deal with my transition to being a black man. With growing despair, I watched my professional connections, support and goodwill evaporate, along with my prospects of remaining employed. I was harassed until I was forced to leave. I received harassing telephone calls hourly from my supervisor some days. I received assignments after hours that were due by 9 a.m. the next morning. The stress was overwhelming. I ended up taking a stress leave for several weeks. I thought upon my return perhaps things would settle down. I was back less than a week from stress leave and knew that it wasn’t going to settle down. I was forbidden from talking to certain people and my activities were heavily monitored. I was forced out and unemployed for about a year before finally obtaining full-time employment.”
Broadus also reviewed survey numbers showing that 90 percent of transgender Americans experience harassment and discrimination at work and 26 percent had lost a job due to discrimination.
Charles, a vice president with General Mills in Minneapolis, testified that diversity and inclusion – and ENDA – are good for business.
“When you combine diversity, which we define simply as difference, with a culture that acknowledges, respects, and values all of our differences and similarities, good things happen,” he said. “We find ourselves able to connect with our consumers, customers and communities. We reap new ideas and innovation. And we recruit and retain the talent to win now and in the future.”
Charles said General Mills was honored to represent “corporate America” and push for the non-discrimination bill.
Parshal, an attorney with the National Religious Broadcasters Association in Manassas, Va., was the only witness scheduled by Republicans on the committee. He said, “As it stands now in the form of Senate Bill 811, (ENDA) would impose a substantial, unconstitutional burden on religious organizations. Furthermore, it would interfere with their ability to effectively pursue their missions.”
Days after the hearing, with no indication on when the legislation might be voted upon in the Senate, activists focused on pushing for an executive order to at least protect LGBT people working under federal contracts. On June 26, LGBT rights demonstrators gathered outside an Obama for America fundraiser in Miami.
“Losing a job in this tough economy might mean foreclosure or homelessness to many. The ENDA executive order will protect 25 percent of the American workforce who work for federal con- tractors,” said Felipe Matos of GetEqual. “This is why we have been hard at work in the last few weeks.”