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Fired, Harassed LGBT Workers Wonder Why Obama Won't 'Stick His Neck Out' On ENDA

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama made a big splash on Tuesday with two executive orders relating to equal pay for women. But for all his talk about using the power of his pen to get things done in Washington, he isn't showing any signs of taking action on an issue with significant support: banning workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people.

The White House argument has been the same for months. Congress needs to take the lead on the issue, not the president, because legislation would go much further, officials say. If Congress passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it would make it illegal nationwide to fire or harass someone at work for being LGBT. In contrast, if Obama were to sign an executive order, it would only apply to federal contractors.

But that rationale doesn't hold much weight considering Obama keeps taking action on matters he insists Congress needs to deal with on a broader level. In addition to Tuesday's executive orders on fair pay, an issue he's urging Congress to act on, Obama unilaterally raised the minimum wage for federal contractors in February, even as he continued pressing Congress to pass more comprehensive legislation. In June 2012, he used his executive authority to prevent Dream Act-eligible students from being deported, despite his ongoing push for immigration reform legislation.

The issue of workplace discrimination against LGBT people has stalled in Congress, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said there's "no way" he'll bring up ENDA this year.

Some LGBT HuffPost readers wrote in describing the discrimination they have faced at work -- and wondering why Obama isn't taking action when he can.

Lisa Rowell, a transgender woman living in California, says she was harassed for months and ultimately pushed out of her job because of her gender identity:

In the spring of 2012 I was working for a large international technology company in San Jose CA as a Distinguished Engineer. I identified as a Trans Woman and though I had started developing breasts, I hid them using tight undergarments and attempted to present as male.

Unfortunately, I don't think my attempts at hiding who I was went very well, because I drew the attention of a director in the company who started to make unwelcome advances, touching me whenever he got the chance. As fate with have it, the excellent, very protective director I was working for left the company and I was moved underneath the man who was harassing me.

At first I feared going to HR because I didn't feel safe revealing my transgender status, so I attempted to transfer out of the group, but that was denied by the harasser. Later when he snuck up behind me and started rubbing my back (I suspect looking for a bra strap) in front of my team, I walked out and contacted HR.

Things got even worse when Rowell requested a transfer out from under her harasser. She said the HR manager became aggressive and told her the company was planning to lay her off, a "bizarre" moment considering she had just gotten a six-figure bonus and developed "very game-changing technology" for the company. Rowell was also told she couldn't work in the office anymore because she was transgender, and she would have to work at home for the time being. A few weeks later, the company cut off her access to the network and she couldn't work at all. She was forced to resign.

"They seemed unwilling to deal with the director, for whatever reason. I didn't know my rights. I didn't know the HR department would be so hostile," Rowell said. "It was instantly disgusting."

Rowell said executive action from Obama is far more important to her than Congress passing ENDA. California already has its own version of ENDA, she said, but people don't take it or LGBT workplace discrimination seriously. The real problem, she said, is people's attitudes on the issue.

"Not even Obama cares enough to stick his neck out there. That sends a message to the rest of the country that, 'This is not important,'" Rowell said. "I think an ENDA executive order from the president can help change attitudes over time."

Chris Trigger, a television meteorologist who is gay and who asked to be identified with a pseudonym, said he'll never forget the day when his managers anonymously told him to stop acting so gay during his weather reports. Trigger provided HuffPost with a copy of the letter that was left on his desk; HuffPost blacked out Trigger's real name and the studio's location, per his request:

The letter was a rant from a viewer about my mannerisms. They offended this viewer who encouraged station management to have a talk with me because people did not want to watch a gay person on local television.

A manager at my television station clearly took this viewer's advice. My name was scribbled in funky handwriting on my station's branded envelope to mask the deliverer's identity. That is why all the contact information was blacked out as well. The television manager opted to have a conversation with me about my gay mannerisms in the most cowardly way possible. Three managers had received the email, but no one admitted to printing, blacking out names, copying, or placing the letter on my desk.

letter

Outwardly I was stoic, but I was crumbling inside. I was not comfortable with my sexuality as a twenty-three year old and this letter told me what some managers at my station really thought. The complaint is not about my knowledge or forecasting ability, but an attack at the core of my being.

Trigger went on to win several Emmys for his work, and he said he still winces when he thinks of the way he was treated at that station, which is located in the Deep South. He acknowledged that employers in the television business have a right to ask for cosmetic changes from their on-camera employees. But it's different to ask an employee to "alter who you are," he said, and he's puzzled as to why Obama won't do anything about it in the absence of congressional action.

"This type of discrimination is real," Trigger said. "The president has a chance to bypass the stalling and game playing with the stroke of a pen. Millions of Americans can immediately be protected from workplace discrimination."

If Obama did sign an executive order on ENDA, it would protect as many as 16 million federal contractors. Some LGBT federal employees say the move would have a major effect on other pressing issues too.

Sarah Vestal, a transgender woman in California who works for the Treasury Department, says she has been fighting to get reimbursed tens of thousands of dollars she paid out of pocket for health care costs surrounding her gender transition. Her battle isn't directly related to ENDA; it's more about the government's lack of enforcement of a 2012 ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the federal ban on sex discrimination covers transgender discrimination.

Vestal said there's been no official guidance on how to implement the 2012 rules change, known as Macy v. Holder, so transgender federal employees are still being discriminated against when it comes to health insurance. It would help their cause tremendously if Obama signed an executive order on ENDA, she said, because it would show he's serious about stemming workplace discrimination within the government.

"It would strengthen the Macy v. Holder ruling," Vestal said. "It would help eliminate the structural discrimination ... Transgender people in the federal government are pulling their hair out."

HuffPost Readers: Have you been fired, harassed or discriminated against at work because of your sexual orientation or gender identity? If you're open to sharing your story, please email us at openreporting@huffingtonpost.com, or call us at 860-348-3376 and leave a voicemail describing your experience.

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