Last week marked the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's launch of the Great Society, a broad collection of anti-discrimination and anti-poverty measures that reflected the apex of American idealism -- and that steered so many of us to champion a nation where all could prosper, no matter one's race or color or creed. While LBJ's effort was scheduled, by its own terms, to expire after 50 years, there is widespread agreement that his work continues, and that today his vision remains incomplete.
In this light, it is most disappointing that yet another year has passed since the White House advised in 2012 that it was "studying" the issue of LGBT workplace discrimination, and that another year has gone by without the President signing an Executive Order (EO) expanding workplace non-discrimination measures beyond the traditional bases -- race, color, religion, sex, national origin -- signed into law by President Johnson nearly 50 years ago. While, over the years, these Great Society protections have been extended to cover veterans and disabled persons, the recent energy has centered around ensuring workplace non-discrimination for America's LGBT population.
Several trends suggest this is the year, and Pride, the time, the President signs an E.O. that further expands protections against discrimination on the job. Most noticeable is Obama's revival of his 2008 message of hope and inclusion, an effort that is at least in part designed to rally his base with the sense of excitement and purpose needed for them to come out and vote in a tough off-year election environment. Having declared this a year of "executive action," the President has already substituted executive orders for legislation to protect the labor pool he directly controls, once Congress failed to enhance employment rights in important ways.
So at a time when the NFL has drafted an openly gay player to work for one of its teams and after the Senate's recent move, by a strong and bipartisan majority, to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (it remains blocked in the House), can a presidential order ensuring against non-discrimination in the federally-funded workplace be far behind?
What is little known is that an employment non-discrimination policy that could serve as a model for Obama's inevitable E.O. has already been put in place at one small U.S. federal agency -- and it was enacted under this President's own watch. What's groundbreaking about this policy is that it addresses workplace non-discrimination that embraces, but is even broader than, LGBT rights.
At the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I helped lead an effort in 2012 to develop a new policy that urges all USAID contractors and grant recipients to apply the same comprehensive nondiscrimination policies as are applied by the agency to its own employees. These aspirational protections, the furthest the Agency could go in the absence of legislation or an E.O., are not limited to LGBT employees, but also cover marital status, political affiliation, pregnancy and "any other conduct that does not adversely affect performance."
As a result, today all contracts and grants issued by USAID for the billions of dollars of development work the agency oversees around the world each year, contain mandatory provisions that strongly encourage each and every contractor and grantee recipient of federal funds to adopt and enforce all these expanded workplace non-discrimination policies -- notably including for U.S. projects performed overseas.
When the President is ready to sign a Workplace Non-Discrimination order, as he will surely do one day soon, he should look to the example of USAID and fashion an order that either includes all existential categories worthy of protection, or instead leaves out no status or conduct category which "does not adversely affect performance."
While more work would remain to implement an order that is expanded in these ways -- and that also applies meaningful compliance measures -- signing it would clearly advance workplace rights and help cement Obama's own civil rights legacy in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. As another President counseled 50 years ago, "Your imagination and your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs... for in your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the Great Society."