Every day, as I drive my kids to school, I pass an ExxonMobil gas station. Every day, as I pass that station, I'm forced to confront the ongoing discrimination that ExxonMobil gleefully engages in, with the permission of the federal government and the resources of American taxpayers. Last week, however, I was proud that GetEQUAL and GetEQUAL Texas stood up to that discrimination and made clear that, shareholder resolutions be damned, we will not stand idly by. So what happened last week? Let me give a brief overview:
In 1999, before Exxon and Mobil merged, Mobil had a company-wide nondiscrimination policy in place. When the merger went through, that policy was rescinded, meaning that ExxonMobil actually took protections away from its employees. For years, shareholders have put resolutions up for a vote to reinstate those policies, but each year they have been voted down. You might ask whether this is typical for a Big Oil company, which would be a good question. Here's how ExxonMobil compares with its Big Oil peers on HRC's 2012 Corporate Equality Index: On a scale of 0 to 100, British Petroleum (BP) had a score of 85, Shell had a score of 85, and Conoco Phillips had a score of 55 (they protect sexual orientation but not gender identity), but on the same 0-to-100 scale, ExxonMobil had a score of -25. That's right: negative 25 points.
Given that 86 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and nearly half (46 percent) prohibit discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, ExxonMobil is clearly out of step with corporate America. But it gets worse. Even among the Fortune 10, the upper echelons of the corporate world, ExxonMobil is a dinosaur (no offense to dinosaurs). Among the 10 largest publicly traded companies, nine prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, six prohibit discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, and eight provide partner health benefits.
But the worst part is that the federal government endorses all of this. I know, I know, President Obama just came out in favor of marriage equality, so what right do I have to criticize the government? Well, since the federal government has contracted with ExxonMobil for over $7 billion in work and resources since 2000, including over $1 billion since President Obama took office in 2009, my tax-paying family is actually being forced to support ExxonMobil's discriminatory practices until or unless President Obama signs an executive order to ban discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
So you can imagine my pride when GetEQUAL Texas activists stood outside the annual ExxonMobil shareholder meeting in Dallas last week with a 50-foot-long banner that read "Employment Discrimination Stalls American Progress: Full Federal Equality Now!" You can imagine how I felt as I passed the ExxonMobil station that I see each day knowing that we were standing up to this Big Oil giant (along with other protesters from Occupy, CodePink, the Dallas Resource Center, Greenpeace, and others). You can imagine how proud I was as I drove my kids to school knowing that GetEQUAL was helping to bear witness and demand accountability from a corporate giant that takes taxpayer dollars, and from a federal government that signs the checks.
I've always thought that employment protection is the minimum that one should ask for as an equal citizen of a country. In a country built on the premise that minority groups should be protected equally under the law, I think it's of utmost importance that the federal government end the practice of contracting with companies that do not have fully inclusive nondiscrimination policies in place. As a native Mississippian, I know the fear that millions of Americans live with each day, going to work not knowing if it will be their last day, unable to put a picture of their spouse on their desk, unable to talk with their boss about their gender transition, or forced to discuss with purposeful vagueness what they did on their weekend off.
Companies like ExxonMobil are perfect examples of why we need the White House to step up and do the right thing. Places like Texas and Mississippi are where we need the most help for LGBT workers -- and the places where the most powerful and passionate LGBT organizing is happening. GetEQUAL Texas organizers like Daniel Cates, CD Kirven, and Meg Hargis, three of the many folks who held court outside the ExxonMobil meeting last week, are forced to do what the federal government will not do: stand up for the right of LGBT Americans to work without fear.
We know that those most affected by the lack of LGBT civil rights are those who are most willing to take risks for their full equality under the law. GetEQUAL Texas was (and is) following in the footsteps of other American civil-rights movements in taking bold, nonviolent, direct action to speak truth to the powerful people in that ExxonMobil boardroom and to the powerful people in the White House.
We know that in a Republican-dominated House of Representatives the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) stands a slim chance of passage. Of course we need Republicans to stop taking steps to impede progress on LGBT issues, but we also need Democrats to become our champions, to fight with us to achieve full federal equality and to use their power for change while they have the ability to do so.
When President Obama "evolved" on marriage equality, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the administration had no plans "at this time" to sign an executive order tackling employment discrimination among federal contractors. As we move into Pride Month, and as the White House plans to hold its annual Pride Month cocktail reception, I hope that President Obama will reassess that decision. I hope that President Obama will understand that our right to marry is diminished if we don't have the right to a safe workplace. I hope that President Obama will speak truth to power with us -- and will call on ExxonMobil and all other federal contractors to "evolve" on workplace discrimination.
I hope that, one day, I'll be able to drive by the ExxonMobil station as I take my kids to school and know that because LGBT activists on the streets spoke truth to power in the corporate suites, my tax dollars won't be used to fuel discrimination. That would be a Pride Month celebration worth celebrating.
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