GAY GROUPS REFOCUS ON WORKPLACE: Activists Re-Energized to Push through Long-Debated Anti-Discrimination Act

Article excerpt

Emboldened by the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, gay rights groups have set their sights once again on the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. The act would prohibit public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity as a basis for discrimination.

The proposed law would cover hiring, firing, promotion or compensation decisions, according to the gay advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. But James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, believes ENDA would achieve much more than legal protection in the workplace. "The law sets expectations for society," Esseks says. "Establishing new social norms for appropriate behavior is going to create a better environment for both straight and LGBT people in the workplace." With gay employees spending time worrying about discrimination, he adds, companies aren't fully benefiting from their talent.

Gays are protected from employment discrimination by laws in 21 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, employment bias against transgender individuals is prohibited in 12 of those states and the district. A handful of other states also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, but limit protection to public employees only.

Efforts to bar employment discrimination against gays on a national level date back to 1974, and the ENDA legislation itself has floundered in Congress since 1994. Opponents contend the act would create a more litigious workplace. "ENDA would invite employees to take an ordinary workplace conflict, in some cases with plenty of blame to go around, and turn it, literally, into a federal case," said Tony Perkins, president ofthe Family Research Council, in his 2009 House testimony. Some ENDA opponents also argue that sexual orientation and gender identity are matters of choice and that gay and transgender employees aren't entitled to the same protections as other minorities.

Despite ENDA's history and the potential roadblock of the new Republican majority in the House, proponents remain optimistic and expect the bill to be reintroduced in Congress in March or April. "With bills like the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act being passed, we are on the verge of doing away with institutionalized discrimination," says Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Human Rights Campaign Workplace Project. "There are dozens of major corporations that are petitioning the federal government to pass ENDA; they want and expect the federal government to set a standard of equality of what a workplace environment should be like."

The project has long lobbied Congress and mobilized corporate support. More recently, it has begun using Facebook, Twitter and its blog to spread the word about ENDA and take the issues from Washington to the homes of people nationwide.

"We have a very robust social media effort," says Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. "The American public is supportive of the goal ENDA would accomplish, but they are still very uninformed about the fact that it's legal in so many places in the country for LGBT people to lose their jobs because of who they are."

According to a 2010 survey by the not-for-profit Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, nearly eight out of 10 heterosexual adults said they believe employees should be judged on job performance, not their sexual orientation. Yet only 44 percent said they believe gays are treated fairly and equally in the workplace.

One of ENDA's biggest backers is the Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness, a group of 80 major employers, including Cisco Systems Inc. and Ernst & Young, that pledge their support for the federal legislation. "We are already very open and active in ensuring Cisco is a safe place to work," says Rick Moran, a Cisco vice president and executive sponsor of the company's gay and transgender employee network. …