03/12/2012 08:27 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Obama's Opportunity: A New Era for LGBT Employment Equality?

Brooke Waits had a feeling the meeting with her boss was not going to go well. She had been summoned to her supervisor's office, and her worst fears were immediately realized. "I'm sorry. We are letting you go," she was told. No reason, no discussion. But Brooke knew exactly why she had been fired. A day earlier, her boss had inadvertently discovered a photo of Brooke with her girlfriend. Just like that, she went from being a highly praised, up-and-coming employee to being out of a job. And there wasn't anything she could do about it. Her firing, though discriminatory, was completely legal, and she had no recourse.

Brooke's story is not unique. In fact, discrimination against homosexuals used to be official government policy. On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, citing spurious concerns over Cold War "security risks" and acting in the midst of a national moral panic over homosexuality, signed Executive Order 10450, which, among other things, required all federal agencies to fire every gay and lesbian employee (referred to in the order as being involved in "sexual perversion") they could find. And he demanded that private companies holding government contracts root out homosexuals in their businesses, as well. In the vicious, anti-gay witch hunts that followed, thousands of LGBT Americans were hounded out of their jobs. Careers were ruined, lives were lost, and the toll was staggering. LGBT people who had wanted nothing more than to serve their country were deemed threats to the state, their lives changed forever.

In the course of directing a documentary film about this shameful period in our history, I've spoken to many people who were victims of what has become known as the "Lavender Scare." These men and women fought back against the injustice they had lived through, even protesting outside the White House in 1965. They played a crucial part in starting the modern gay rights movement. But the days of the Lavender Scare are not as far in our past as we might like to think.

For what happened to Brooke Waits didn't happen in the 1950s. It happened just recently. And in many parts of the country, it continues to happen every single day. Hardworking, capable workers are thrown out of their jobs simply because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or are forced to endure vicious harassment by fellow employees while their employers stand by and do nothing to discourage it.

A recent study by UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy found that 27 percent of LGBT people said that they had been harassed at work or lost a job over the course of the past five years because of their sexual orientation. Only about half of American workers live in states or localities that have outlawed such discrimination. And federal legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has languished in Congress for years and is unlikely to pass our dysfunctional legislature anytime soon, thanks primarily to Republican opposition.

With Congress unwilling to act, President Obama has a unique opportunity to take a major step forward in the effort to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens, and he can do it with the stroke of a pen.

Today, the government does much of its work through privatization and outsourcing rather than internally. An ever-greater percentage of that work is thus being done not by federal employees themselves, who are already protected from discrimination by a 1998 executive order signed by President Clinton.

Through the power of an executive order, President Obama can require companies doing business with the government to adopt policies prohibiting discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; a similar, existing order already requires contractors to bar discrimination based on race, national origin, or religion. The Williams Institute estimates that an executive order would extend job protection to about 500,000 LGBT contractor employees living in cities and states that currently provide no protections from anti-LGBT discrimination.

President Eisenhower's executive order of 1953 required private contractors to fire LGBT workers. Thankfully, that's history. But it's now time to finish the job. By issuing an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, President Obama has an opportunity to make clear that the dark days of our government's officially sanctioned homophobia are finally behind us.