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ENDA: We've Waited Long Enough

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Vandy Beth Glenn should not have to wait any longer. In 2007, she lost her job as a legislative editor for the Georgia General Assembly because of discrimination against her as a transgender employee.

And Richard Mitchell should not have to wait any longer. In 2006, he was fired from his job as superintendent of Bremen Community High School District No. 228 in Chicago by a school board that elected a chairperson who opposed hiring him because he is gay.

These two Lambda Legal clients are suing their former employers for discrimination. They have top-notch experienced lawyers and fairness on their side. They have the constitutional guarantee of equal protection on their side, and Mitchell, who worked in Chicago, has a local law prohibiting discrimination on his side. The one thing they do not have is the very thing that every employee should have: equal opportunity on the job guaranteed by a federal law that explicitly protects against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

It's time for Congress to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) to prohibit employment discrimination against LGBT people. By passing ENDA, Congress not only would provide a legal remedy for discrimination, but also would make a powerful statement of principle regarding fair treatment of all employees who work hard and perform well.

What does it take to pass a bill in Congress? A majority of votes? We've got that. Public opinion in favor of the bill? We've got that, too. An urgent need and effective remedy? That is what ENDA is all about.

It has been more than 40 years since Congress enacted Title VII of the1964 Civil Rights Act, creating for the first time a law against discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Twenty years ago, in 1990, Congress added protections against employment discrimination for people with disabilities by enacting Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is now 2010 and many people are surprised to learn that, in a majority of states, there is no law explicitly prohibiting an employer from firing, refusing to hire or otherwise discriminating against job candidates and employees because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. At Lambda Legal, we still fight to protect people from discrimination using constitutional principles and other laws that may apply, but too often, that's not enough. Only 12 states and the District of Columbia currently have state laws that comprehensively prohibit discrimination against LGBT people, and another nine states prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation only. The first state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was passed by Wisconsin in 1982 and the most recent was passed in Delaware in 2009 after more than ten years of trying in the state legislature.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of obtaining recourse for the widespread discrimination faced by LGBT workers. Lambda Legal operates a Legal Help Desk through which we respond to people who are seeking legal information about and assistance regarding discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Most years, we receive more calls regarding LGBT workplace discrimination than any other single issue -- about 1,000 employment discrimination calls each year. These remarkable figures certainly understate the prevalence of the problem -- we are just one telephone number that people may find.

People define themselves in large part by the work they do, spend significant portions of their time in the workplace, and depend on their jobs to support themselves and their families and to gain access to health care and other benefits. The emotional investment we all have in our jobs means that not only is it devastating when we lose a job, are denied a promotion or otherwise subjected to adverse job actions due to discrimination, but it also takes a significant toll simply to know that we can face harassment or discrimination at any moment and have almost no redress.

For now, Congress alone can provide a national solution to the problem. Having a fair and equal opportunity to get and keep a job, to be judged on the quality of your work and not to be subject to the fears and prejudices of employers should not be dependent on where you live. Vandy Beth Glenn, Richard Mitchell and hundreds of thousands of other LGBT employees around the country should not have to wait any longer.

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