This week, Senate committee members will be debating a bill most Americans think is already the law. Nine in 10 people across the country think it’s illegal to fire, demote or refuse to hire someone because they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. After all, with the march of marriage equality making headlines from coast to coast, surely we must have moved beyond the day when people feared being fired just because of who they are.
There are good reasons why most Americans — and more than 80 percent of small business owners — are mistaken about the state of our civil rights laws. LGBT people are an increasingly visible part of our diverse society, and as a nation we believe so strongly in basic civil rights that it’s almost inconceivable it isn’t already the law. Reading Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s landmark ruling in United States v. Windsor, striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, it’s especially hard to believe that this leap forward can coexist in the same historical moment when LGBT people in most of the country can still be denied, a job, a loan or an apartment because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. In fact, many of the same couples who will benefit from the DOMA ruling in the form of equal veterans’, tax or immigration benefits still have reason to think twice about putting up a family photo at their desk. And while LGBT employees have won a smattering of court cases under existing gender-bias laws, those rulings give only limited and uncertain protection and fail to send a clear message that anti-LGBT discrimination won’t be tolerated.
At the National Center for Transgender Equality, we get phone calls and emails every week from people around the country who are dealing with the most humiliating and frightening harassment every day at work, or who fear losing their job if their supervisor finds out they are transgender.
When we surveyed transgender people across the country, more than 1 in 4 said they’d lost a job because of their gender identity. I’ve talked to many of those folks. Most are shocked that this could happen to them in the United States. Some have faced so much prejudice they don’t believe anyone will help them. Even though most people think it’s already illegal, there’s still enough prejudice that discrimination is persistent, and workers are afraid.
The bill being marked up this week in the Senate, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, has been around for decades, but hasn’t had a Senate vote in 17 years. You don’t have to support marriage equality to agree that no would should be fired for who they are or who they love. An overwhelming majority of Americans support ENDA, as do most small business owners and the nation’s biggest companies; a majority of both the committee and the entire Senate are already co-sponsors. When something is so basic to our sense of fairness that most assume it’s already the law, even this dysfunctional Congress should be able to fulfill Americans’ expectations.
Harper Jean Tobin is the Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality.