I Have a Dream

11.06.13

The ENDA Justifies the Means

The Senate has cleared the way for gay citizens to be protected at work, but Boehner and the House Republicans are determined to quash the law. Why they’re on the wrong side of history.

Two big gay things happened on Monday. First, the Senate voted to clear a procedural hurdle that will eventually lead to passing the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the United States. Second, on the same day, Mike Michaud, the leading candidate to be the next governor of Maine, announced that he is gay. Both events are, as we gays might say, fabulous. But there’s a dark cloud amidst this silver lamé lining.

In 29 states today—in 2013, in the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave—in 29 states you can be legally fired for no other reason than that you’re gay. You can’t be fired because of your race. You can’t be fired because of your gender. You can’t be fired because of your marital status or being pregnant. But you can be fired because you love someone of the same-sex. In 33 states, you can be fired because of your gender identity—whether you’re transgendered or simply are a too-mannish girl or a too-girly guy.

This in the nation where supposedly all of us are created equal, endowed by the same unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Throughout America’s complex history, we have struggled to realize this ideal, periodically correcting the omissions of the past by bringing more Americans under the umbrella of our aspirations toward equality. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act fits squarely within this history, not granting special rights to anyone but simply making sure our laws fully reflect our values.

In fact, 68 percent of Americans support banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That includes 56 percent of Republicans. Perhaps even more telling, eight out of ten voters believe that a law like ENDA already exists. So wait until they learn that House Republicans are keeping ENDA from actually becoming law. Republican Speaker John Boehner opposes the law and says he will not bring it up for a vote. This is particularly absurd considering that the bill was passed by the House in 2007—including 35 Republican votes in favor—and that year died in the Senate. Despite all his talk about creating and keeping jobs, Speaker Boehner may personally support the legalization of employment discrimination—but shouldn’t he at least give the rest of his legislature, and by extension the nation, a right to have its say?

Here’s where Mike Michaud comes in. Michaud has a commanding lead in the current Maine gubernatorial race, especially considering he’s running against an incumbent and it’s still early days (the election will be in November 2014). Fortunately, Maine is one of the states where you cannot be fired because of your sexual orientation—but in his essay declaring his sexual orientation, Michaud had wise words for places and people around the country who think sexuality could ever justify judgments on the job:

For me, it’s just a part of who I am, as much as being a third-generation mill worker or a lifelong Mainer. One thing I do know is that it has nothing to do with my ability to lead the state of Maine.

Whether I was punching a time clock at Great Northern Paper Company for 29 years, serving the people of Maine in the state Legislature, or fighting for our nation’s veterans on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, my personal life has never factored into how I do my job.

In states like Alaska and Alabama and Idaho and Indiana, our fellow Americans can be fired simply because of who they are and who they love. John Boehner supposedly worries that banning such employment discrimination will lead to lawsuits and hurt small businesses. Well, hell yeah! The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also led to lawsuits and hurt small businesses that were intent on continuing to discriminate based on race. But it was the right thing to do. And considering how Republicans now cling to that legendary vote as perhaps the most recent evidence of their party’s tolerance, one might think that the party most desperate to win over new and increasingly open-minded voters would be looking to stand on the right side of history on ENDA, too.

There isn’t a gay person in this country who doesn’t know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination, an experience that is very different from but certainly shared by women and people of color. I have not been fired for my sexual orientation (that I know of!) but I have been harassed in women’s bathrooms or just walking down the street and I have felt the subtle judgment when my partner and I ask for one bed in a hotel room, not two. I haven’t been turned away, mostly because I can pay, and I’ve been fortunate to live in liberal cities for most of my life. But millions and millions of our fellow Americans are working in stockrooms and schools and sandwich shops all across this country, doing their best to do their jobs and provide for themselves and their families. Their employment should be based on how hard they work and how well they do their jobs, not based on their sexuality. As a nation, we have been at our best when we’ve stood up for the basic principles of fairness and equal opportunity and extended the promise and potential of our nation to more and more of our brothers and sisters.

It’s high time we pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and make all of the United States a little more just, a little more fair and a little more fabulous.