It was a signature moment in the president's State of the Union address: "Wherever and whenever I can take steps, without legislation, to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do." So far, he has taken steps for families of federal contract workers when it comes to paying a decent wage -- but not when it comes to providing basic protection from discrimination on the job for LGBT people.
Even though President Obama has made it clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who actually work directly for the federal government are protected from discrimination, millions of federal contractor employees still have no law or policy saying they can't be fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We know that this type of discrimination happens, most Americans think it should be banned, and many think it already is. This is just the type of concrete executive action to promote opportunity that the president promised to take.
A few days after the State of the Union, the president said, "There are a lot of folks who do not have time to wait for Congress." The president was speaking in Wisconsin about unemployed folks who need job training -- but he could just as easily have been speaking about LGBT workers who could be fired tomorrow because of who they are or who they love, and the families who depend on them.
It was historic when the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) by a resounding 64-32 vote last November. Yet like so many other pieces of common sense, bipartisan legislation, it has languished in the House -- even though polls show majority support in every state. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) is part of a campaign that is underway to build pressure for a House vote on ENDA, but there are, indeed, a lot of folks who do not have time to wait.
While America's leading employers have already adopted LGBT nondiscrimination policies, LGBT bias in the workplace continues to be a reality in companies large and small. LGBT workers report being harassed on the job, subjected to cruel notes, rumors and vandalism; being blatantly denied jobs or promotions because of who they are or who they love; or even, in many cases, being fired. This persistent discrimination harms workers and families, and it harms our economy by creating senseless instability, turnover, and loss of valuable skills. While overall economic impact may be small, so are many that the president has sought to address -- and this one is also a fundamental issue of fairness.
There's a lot of careless and inaccurate talk lately about the president "circumventing" Congress. While that would be a serious concern if it were true, it just isn't. The president has taken actions that are well within his authority on the minimum wage, overtime and other issues for federal and federal contract workers -- steps nearly identical to what other presidents have done in the past, and steps that have been specifically assigned to him by Congress. The same would be true of an order to ban anti-LGBT bias in the federal contract workforce, which would build on previous anti-discrimination orders by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.
Banning anti-LGBT bias in the federal contract workplace is a modest, common-sense step the president can take right now -- and a "year of action" would be incomplete without it. NCTE will continue to advocate and exert pressure until it is done.
If you have face job discrimination in any setting, you can file a complaint under the existing federal law banning sex discrimination - see NCTE's resource, "Know Your Rights: Employment Discrimination and Transgender People."
Follow Harper Jean Tobin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TransEquality