07/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gender Identity Discrimination in the Workplace gets First Hearing in Congress

Today, for the first time ever, Congress is holding a hearing to educate Members of Congress exclusively on gender identity issues. This groundbreaking event should also lay the groundwork for congressional action to prohibit arbitrary discrimination against transgender Americans.

While the hearing will not focus on any particular piece of legislation, it will be an opportunity, the first opportunity, for many members of Congress to become familiar with the workplace issues facing the transgender community.

On Monday night, Diego Sanchez, transgender advocate and one of the witnesses who will testify at the hearing was a guest on my radio show, The Agenda on XM Satellite Radio. Diego gave a preview of his testimony and expressed the importance of the first-ever hearing on transgender issues:

The most important thing is that we've never had any recognition of trans lives at this level -- by actually listening to people tell their stories, listening to expert testimony, and being invited to tell stories directly to elected officials.[...]I'm hoping that what Congress will understand from these hearings is wrapped up in my last line of my testimony, which is that I'm there to help affirm that transgender and transsexual people, including me, are equally human and deserve to be treated like other people. I think seeing us as human beings will be a big step. And seeing that we deserve rights in our lives that only reflects what everyone else has will be fair and equitable.

That's really not much to ask. Fair and equitable treatment. But, it doesn't exist.

As President of the Human Rights Campaign, I travel around the country meeting people from the GLBT community. I have heard firsthand too many stories from transgender people who have lost their jobs because of a combination of their employer's fear, ignorance and bigotry. Some are of highly skilled professionals who, though qualified and competent in their positions, suddenly become expendable when they announce the intent to live as the people they truly are.
I meet people from every walk of life -- doctors and lawyers, plumbers and bus drivers. Many are also parents and spouses, whose efforts to find secure, fulfilling employment are also a struggle to provide for their families. The time when we as a nation can tolerate arbitrary discrimination against any group of people has long since passed. That any hardworking transgender American should be denied the ability to contribute to the national economy and support his or her family is simply unacceptable.

There is some progress, particularly in corporate America, where HRC's Workplace Project has taken the leading in working with corporate America in implementing policies for transgender workplace inclusion -- from discrimination and benefits policies to internal practices that reflect how gender is expressed and integrated in the workplace.

In fact, over the past several years, we have seen a meteoric rise of American employers who have affirmatively opened their doors to the transgender community. The number of Fortune 500 companies with transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policies has skyrocketed from only one in 1997 to 125, more than 30% of those corporations, in 2007. More than 50 companies have joined the Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness in support of federal workplace protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, including Bausch & Lomb, Clear Channel Communications, Charles Schwab & Co., Cisco Systems, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Corning, Gap, General Mills, GlaxoSmithKline, Hewlett-Packard, HSBC - North America, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Nationwide, NCR, Nike, Replacements Ltd., and Qualcomm. On this issue, corporate America is way ahead of public policy makers.

We're going to need leadership from Congress. Last year, the House and the Senate have both, in this current Congress, passed bills which would extend the federal hate crime statute to cover transgender people. We need to see that bill signed into law - and we need to expand the coverage of workplace protection to the entire LGBT community. We'll also need a President who will sign these bills into law, not issue veto threats like George Bush did.

So, today's hearing is an important milestone that was achieved through a collaborative effort of leaders across the LGBT community. The transgender community, too long marginalized in American society and even within the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, has made enormous strides in recent years -- we want to help continue that progress and translate it into federal law.

There are many reasons to hope that the future holds even greater acceptance and understanding, including full equality under the law. It is critical that Congress act to protect these, our transgender friends and family, colleagues and neighbors. We're taking a big first step today.