Americans hold dear the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for gay people trapped in the closet under fear of losing their jobs, life offers anything but liberty and happiness.
Jimmy is a 47-year-old man who lives in a rural area of a conservative state that has no legal protections for LGBT people, including employment protections. He wrote me recently to tell me about the nightmare he experiences in his workplace, harassed by co-workers and fearing that he may be fired by his company at any moment simply because he is gay:
I work at a business driving a bus. I have not come out and I'm not sure I want to. I used to get along with my co-workers but there are some who have made it clear they don't like me in the least. They started to ignore me and there are rumors going around that I'm gay. Since this rumor, some of the drivers have totally ignored me or just shut up when I'm around. Two drivers went out of their way to tell customers and try to get me fired. They have asked customers to make false complaints against me, saying I hit on them and even had sex on my bus. I have not done anything of the sort... What can I do?... Please help me.
Jimmy has few people to turn to, and he says his isolation over the years drove him to attempt suicide "several times." He told his mother he's gay a few years ago.
"She said she supported me but has not spoken to me in over three years now," he says. "My three sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins all have stopped speaking to me also."
At work Jimmy has been ostracized by his co-workers even though the people he drives around think he's a great guy who does a terrific job. He says:
The drivers just think I'm gay. None of them know for sure. A couple of them have asked but I reply that I refuse to answer that ignorant question. My customers seem to like me and they have nothing but positive things to say about me. They tell me always I am the nicest driver we have and they know they are safe when they ride with me. I have numerous people and other employees tell me I am the most liked bus driver we have.
Jimmy believes his employer is doing little to protect him, even though he's valued by riders, and he fears that his employer may end up firing him because he's gay, which, as shocking as it may sound, is legal in his state. He's made complaints, but he doesn't get the support from the company that he believes he should receive. One driver, a woman, "talks about gay people, and calls them faggots," Jimmy says. "We were friends for a long time but now she is trying to get me fired."
Some people would say that Jimmy needs to get the hell out of that place, but for many LGBT people in rural America in the years following the worst recession in decades, and with the economy still faltering, that's surely not easy. And why should they move, some of them will ask you, and let the bigots win?
Jimmy's story is why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), being introduced in the Senate again this week, must be passed. Twenty-nine states have no protections based on sexual orientation (and 34 states have no protections based on gender identity), and Jimmy is in one of them. The political climate on LGBT rights, along with the polls, has changed dramatically in recent months. All but a few Democratic U.S. senators now support marriage equality, as do two Republican senators. There's a belief among LGBT advocates that ENDA could pass the Senate, and, with many Republicans on the defensive on the gay issue, yet still not willing to commit to gay marriage, that it could even get a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
Though the White House promised to be a force propelling the passage of ENDA, activists say that the president has done little in the past year on that front. He also hasn't signed an executive order that would ban workplace discrimination against gay and transgender people among federal contractors, though LGBT activists and prominent Democratic lawmakers have urged him to do so.
For people like Jimmy, the idea of marriage equality is amazing, and it's pretty wonderful that the president supports it. But right now that's not what's going to help them pay the rent and continue to put food on the table, or protect them from being harassed and tormented at work, or simply allow them to just be who they are without fear of losing their jobs.