It was great to see the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hold a hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) last week. Not only was it long overdue, but in today's economy turning a blind eye to the legally sanctioned discrimination against LGBT workers in 34 American states is simply unconscionable. It was also great to see the many supportive comments from the Democratic senators in attendance, and it was especially heartening to witness trans man and community advocate Kylar Broadus become the very first transgender person to address the United States Senate.
That said, the time for talk is over. Now it's time for the Senate to take action.
I don't believe that it's at all a coincidence that not a single Republican member of the HELP Committee attended the hearing. While these folks may not want to come out and say so in front of a microphone or television camera, especially during an election year, a lot of them know what the right thing to do here is, even if some of their colleagues are loath to admit it. When you've got well-respected Republicans like Mark Kirk, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and even Paul Ryan coming down on the side of fairness and justice for LGBT American workers, not to mention a majority of the most powerful and influential American corporations already including these protections in their own corporate policies, you know that many in the GOP have got to be rethinking their traditional positions on this.
The fact is that America is finally ready to treat LGBT American citizens as equals in the workplace, and that's becoming clearer every day. Indeed, polling done on the issue over the last decade has repeatedly told us that the real problem with getting ENDA passed into law actually has far less to do with negative public opinion than it does with cowardice from some political leaders on both sides of the aisle who still seem far more concerned with how a vote in favor of ENDA might cost them a few far-right-wing votes than with doing the right thing by their LGBT constituents.
The American people, and in fact most of the Western world, have long since passed our Congress by on the question of protecting LGBT workers, and as time goes on, Congress' refusal to catch up with the rest of us continues to cause the American electorate, particularly the younger portions of it, to look upon Congress as an anachronism, a political body utterly out of touch with the realities of modern America and our modern culture.
Fortunately, while Congress has proven to be even slower to embrace the idea of real action behind supportive words about protecting LGBT workplace rights than our president, the rest of America hasn't been just sitting around waiting for it to happen. Twenty-one states now prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 16 of those states also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
In addition, the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index for 2011 shows that more major American corporations are protecting their LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace through their own corporate policies than ever before, and that number is continuing to increase over time. Corporate America and the American people are way ahead of Congress and President Obama on this issue, and it's time for our federal government to finally get over it, stop playing politics with basic American civil rights, and catch up to where the rest of our country has already been for some time now.
We're also seeing our own activist community getting more firmly behind the issue. The Human Rights Campaign, long seen as a self-serving roadblock to the passage of a fully inclusive ENDA due to its laser-like focus on same-sex marriage rights, has been exhibiting a noticeably increased effort to support the bill's passage in recent months and was even the first national LGBT civil rights organization to publicly call out President Obama for his failure to sign an executive order that would require companies that do business with the federal government to protect their LGBT employees from discrimination.
There's also a relatively new organization on the scene, Freedom to Work, which has the passage of ENDA into law as its sole focus, the first national advocacy organization created with that specific one-issue mission. The president and founder of Freedom to Work, Tico Almeida, recently released a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asking him to bring up ENDA for a vote in the full Senate this session. (The text of the full letter can be found here.) Tico Almeida speaks for many working-class LGBT Americans and our families when he says:
"[W]e respectfully urge you to bring ENDA to a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate this summer so that LGBT Americans do not have to wait any longer to know which of their Senators support their freedom to work without harassment or discrimination on the job, and which Senators still find it acceptable for Americans to be unjustly fired simply because of whom they love or their gender identity. After decades of delay on this critically important legislation, LGBT Americans need to know whether our elected officials stand with us. We deserve a vote.
Last week I interviewed Tico Almeida on my Internet radio show. We talked about ENDA, of course, as well as its history, where the advocacy on the bill is now, and what we can expect going forward. His answers were at once educational and revealing, and one or two were even genuinely surprising, even to someone who's been covering this story as long as I have. I mean, who knew GOP rising star Paul Ryan was a supporter of ENDA? (Hear the full interview below.)
The inescapable truth is one that those of us paying attention have known for a long time now, even if some in our federal government and the mainstream media are still apparently trying to pretend they don't get it. Americans understand that a level playing field in the workplace is what's best for everyone, and it's the kind of America they want to live in. Most of our nation's biggest companies understand that workplace equality is not only what's best for our country but what's best for business and their own bottom lines. While we know that it's highly unlikely that a GOP-led House of Representatives will take up ENDA, particularly during this session of Congress, we also know that a vote in the full Senate to put Senators on both sides of the aisle on the record on this critical issue is not only doable but also the morally right thing to do.
The last time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked when ENDA would get a vote in the Senate, he told us, "Soon." That was three years ago. It's time for Senator Reid to get the full Senate on record as he's done on other issues and take the next logical step toward making ENDA the law of the land. The old fears are just no longer valid, not that they ever really were. It's time for our federal government to join most of the Western world in the 21st century.
No more excuses, no more unkept promises, no more avoiding the issue. The time for merely talking about protecting all Americans from discrimination in the workplace is over. Over a quarter-century of waiting is long enough. It's time to get this done.
Listen to my interview with Tico Almeida, president and founder of Freedom to Work, on ENDA and LGBT equality in the workplace: