09/20/2007 01:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gay Rights, Gathering Steam

A whole lot is happening on the issue of gay rights here in your nation's capital. A new Human Rights Campaign survey finds a big leap in the number of companies achieving a perfect score for their workplace practices. The House of Representatives is likely to vote next week on a federal law to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT people. And a record 2,100 people are expected next week in D.C. for the annual conference of Out & Equal, a network of LGBT workplace groups.

Taking them in order:

The HRC Corporate Equality Index brings (mostly) encouraging news. A total of 195 employers received a perfect score, up from 138 last year and only 13 in 2002. This is true even though HRC has raised the bar since then -- now, to get a top ranking, companies must provide full domestic partner benefit programs, support for transgender inclusion and insurance coverage, support for GLBT employee resource groups and either marketing or philanthropic dollars to back gay causes. You can find all the data here.

"Employee non-discrimination is the floor, not the ceiling anymore," says Bob Witeck of Witeck Combs, which consults with Fortune 500 companies on GLBT issues. What was once "a radical concept has become the standard," he told me.

Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, says GLBT employees looking for a friendly workplace can now "pick and choose from strong employers in nearly every major industry."

One company that took as step backward was Wal-Mart. The retail giant scored a 40 rating, down from 65 in the previous year, in part because it pulled back on its support from some gay rights groups. I wrote a column about Wal-Mart's pullback in June.

The HRC survey is a reminder that corporate America is out in front of government when it comes to gay rights. ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, introduced again this year in Congress seeks to remedy that -- and I'm told that the bill has a good shot of passage when the House votes next week.

It's needed. "Most working Americans, regrettably, don't work for Fortune 500 companies, as vast as they are," Witeck says. In 31 states, it's perfectly legal to fire or decide not to hire someone because of his or her sexual orientation.

Most Americans think that's wrong. In public opinion surveys, more than 80 percent say that they believe that gays and lesbians should have equal rights at work. Nearly 60 percent favor federal legislation to ban workplace discrimination against gays.

Interestingly, dozens of companies have gone on record in support of ENDA, including Chevron, Cisco, Citi, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Ernst & Young, Gap, General Mills, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, Nike and Time Warner.

ENDA has been introduced in Congress every year since 1994; this is the first time it's being voted on by the House. If it passes, it stands a good chance of winning Senate approval as well, in which case President Bush will determine its fate. Most likely, supporters won't be able to muster the votes to overcome a presidential veto.

Finally, the three-day Out & Equal summit: About 170 corporations in 45 states will be there, I'm told, more than ever before, and nearly 100 companies will sponsor in one way or another. About 20 percent of attendees are straight, many of them HR types or recruiters seeking to understand GLBT issues. Speakers will include Chrissy Gephardt, political advocate and the first openly gay member of a U.S. presidential candidate's family. (Dick Gephardt, her dad, ran in the Democratic primary in 1994); John Amaechi, the first former NBA player to come out publicly; and Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV Networks Music Group and president of Logo. I'll be on a panel on Friday morning about workplace issues and the media.