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LGBT Workplace Discrimination: Out of Work for Being Out at Work?

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For those who share a vision for a country in which all LGBT Americans can show up at work each day with the security of knowing that they cannot be fired simply for who they are or whom they love, the last month has been marked by great disappointment and a historic victory.

But both are stark reminders that even in our own LGBT and allied community, too few understand the significance of either the disappointment or the victory. Shockingly, a large percentage of us are unaware that LGBT people do not actually have federal employment protections. In most states in most of the country, it is perfectly legal to be fired for who you are or whom you love. Really? That is the reaction, in large part, of LGBT people and the public alike. And that's a hurdle we need to overcome in order to move forward.

Let's look at some recent developments and address the problems we face in educating ourselves and the public that the playing field is anything but level and we certainly haven't yet achieved full equality.

The disappointment came on April 11. The White House announced that contrary to the hopes of advocates, and despite polls showing that a large majority of Americans support nondiscrimination protections for LGBT workers, President Obama would not sign -- at this time -- an executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination by businesses that take contracts with the government. In an attempt to clarify their reasoning behind not protecting scores of people immediately, the White House took the opportunity to reemphasize its support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Many people are simply scratching their heads, since there is no chance whatsoever of passing ENDA in the current Congress. The road is clear: we must continue to advocate for his signing the executive order in the shorter term, and we must pass federal employment protections for LGBT people.

The victory came just last week, when one brave woman, with the help of the Transgender Law Center, won a case that has enormous implications for transgender Americans' employment protection. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), ruling in the case of a transgender woman, Mia Macy, found that discrimination based on gender identity violates Title VII, the section of 1964's Civil Rights Act that bans sex discrimination. With a staggering 90 percent of transgender people reporting discrimination or harassment on the job or hiding who they are to avoid it, the significance of this ruling in transgender discrimination cases is impossible to overstate. To better understand the nuances of this ruling and why we still need federal legislation, see our Advocate.com piece here.

As we move forward, we must keep up the pressure on President Obama to protect LGBT people on his watch, and we must push Congress to end the mass discrimination that is still occurring in hiring practices and workplaces across the country.

But this must also serve as a call to action for LGBT people and our straight friends and co-workers who know that this is their concern, as well. The truth is that in the last few years, as advocates, we have been challenged to motivate grassroots pressure to secure employment protections. Why would this be the case?

Part of the answer is both shocking and stark: Most LGBT people are not even aware that LGBT people can still be fired in 29 states simply for who they are. According to a poll conducted last October by Harris Poll and Witeck-Combs Communications, a full two thirds of self-identified LGBT people are under the mistaken impression that federal law already bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, with an additional 10 percent unsure. (The same poll found that 75 percent of all Americans believe the same; a Center for American Progress poll found that an even higher percentage of all Americans, 90 percent, are misinformed.)

It's understandable why so many in our community are unaware. Over the last four decades -- and increasingly in the last 10 years -- we have been successful as a movement at securing employment protections in cities and towns, at universities, in corporations, and through labor union contracts. Almost half of us now live in a jurisdiction with some employment protections for LGBT people, and a great many of us have been fortunate enough never to have held a job at which we were at risk of being fired for who we are (this is unlikely to be true for the vast majority of transgender people).

The fact that so many people mistakenly believe we have protections should be a clarion call to all of us: Those who care about LGBT equality must take advantage of the attention being paid to the president's inaction on an executive order to spread the word that, still in this country, the ability of LGBT people to put food on the family table is at risk simply because of who you are or whom you love. We are in a moment of both frustration and celebration. Let's use it to step up, educate each other and ourselves, tell our stories of continued discrimination, and push for a level playing field -- something the vast majority of Americans support and, ironically, believe we already enjoy. Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of people will walk into work afraid. Let's make those days fewer and fewer.