Just two months before President Clinton would be reelected, the U.S. Senate held a vote on the anti-gay and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Less than an hour later, the Senate voted on a bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, that would finally prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation. As we know, the Senate voted to pass DOMA, and just hours later, ENDA failed to pass the Senate—by a single vote.
It was a double defeat that left our community disappointed, disaffected, and disheartened. I should know. I was there.
As the political director the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization, I fiercely lobbied senators from both political parties that September to vote for ENDA, a commonsense bill that would make it illegal to fire someone from their job simply because they were gay.
Nearly two decades later, ENDA has yet to be passed into law.
Contrary to popular belief, LGBT people do not enjoy protections from workplace discrimination under federal law, though almost 90 percent of Americans believe such discrimination to be prohibited. Even with advances at the state level over the past two decades, firing someone simply for being gay or transgender remains perfectly legal in a majority of states. A federal law like ENDA would put an end to that.
Research shows that these protections are sorely needed. LGBT workers continue to be denied employment or fired from their jobs due to job-irrelevant factors such as their sexual orientation and gender identity. The business community is keenly aware that discrimination against talented, competent employees is bad for business; polls have demonstrated that 63 percent of small businesses support ENDA.
On Thursday a bipartisan group of lawmakers once again introduced ENDA, which has been introduced in every session of Congress save one since the bill was first unveiled in 1994. And still the bill has languished in the halls of Congress, though a majority of Americans have supported equal rights and opportunities for gay people in the workplace since at least the early 1980s. Polling shows that today, 73 percent of Americans support these protections.
Hanging in my office I have a vote count from the 1996 ENDA vote that reads 49–50, a painful reminder of that day in September when we lost on DOMA and we were one vote away from ENDA’s passage in the Senate. The late civil rights champion Sen. Edward Kennedy sent it to me, and I cannot help but wonder what he would have to say about ENDA’s current prospects and the absolute necessity of a law that would protect LGBT workers from unjust firings.
DOMA may very well be on its way out. Last month, a majority of Supreme Court justices expressed serious doubt about the law’s constitutionality. But even if DOMA were repealed, and even if same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states, firing someone for being LGBT would still be legal under federal law. That’s absurd.
The time to pass ENDA is long overdue. Despite the lack of progress, however, I’m optimistic. We have an unprecedented opportunity to enact ENDA into law. President Obama supports the bill, as does a majority of the American public, regardless of political background or ideology. Moreover, a slew of lawmakers have rushed to come out in support of same-sex marriage.
In 2011 we saw the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—a policy that essentially sanctioned workplace discrimination against gay service members. If the U.S. military, the largest employer in the United States, has acknowledged the need to end discrimination against gay and lesbian employees, surely it is time for the rest of the country to do the same.
At its core, ENDA’s premise is simple. Nobody should be denied employment or forced out of a job due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s time for Congress to pass a law that protects an American ideal: the belief that all people deserve a chance to work hard and build success for themselves and their families.