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We Can’t Wait for Federal Workplace Protections | Commentary

Over the past two weeks, national conversations have picked up once again about the need for federal workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

There is no federal law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and just 16 states and D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act — recently introduced in the House and Senate — would ultimately solve this problem. However, President Barack Obama has the authority to extend significant and much-needed employment protections to the LGBT community by either amending an existing executive order (11246) or issuing a separate executive order to prohibit discrimination by companies that contract with the federal government.

Obama has indicated that he supports these protections via a federal law, even while the LGBT community is calling on him to take the first step and to show leadership in ending workplace discrimination by signing an executive order that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by federal contractors.

Federal contractors account for about 22 percent of the American workforce; signing such an executive order would not simply provide leadership to Congress in passing ENDA, but it would also provide real and concrete protections for folks who work at companies such as Exxon Mobil that, year after year, have refused to add these policies on their own.

Some have said to be patient. Some have said that we should wait until after the Supreme Court rules on marriage. Still others have said that LGBT workplace discrimination isn’t a big enough problem to focus on right now.

To those excuses, we would draw attention to the Equality Act of 1974 — the first pro-LGBT piece of legislation introduced in Congress. Back in 1974, Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., tried to first address this problem, knowing that the inability to have a fair shot in the workplace was a core problem for LGBT Americans.

Even 39 years ago, we knew that the ability to earn a paycheck, provide for one’s family and contribute to the economy was key to fully participating in the American dream.

Instituting LGBT workplace protections is widely supported by the American public. About three-quarters — 73 percent — of likely 2012 voters supported a federal workplace non-discrimination law in a poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress. This support cuts across political party affiliation, with 81 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents and 66 percent of Republicans supporting workplace fairness. Even among voters who identify themselves as generally unfavorable toward LGBT people, 50 percent still supported workplace nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community.

In addition to supporting federal legislation, voters also support an executive order. Among likely 2012 voters, 73 percent also supported an executive order signed by the president, including 86 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans. Only 9 percent of voters actively opposed such a move.

There is no reason to wait. With workplace protections for LGBT Americans widely supported by the American public, there is no reason to be patient. With people being kept out or kicked out of the workplace each day, there is no reason to wait on the Supreme Court.

Both Obama and members of Congress know that this is an urgent need. With recent research on poverty among LGBT Americans pointing to serious and disproportionate effects of the lack of workplace protections, both the executive and legislative branches hold responsibility for solving this problem once and for all, right now.

When campaigning for president in 2008, Obama promised to sign such an executive order should he be elected to the office of president. And members of Congress are looking to the president for his leadership, even as they prepare to vote on ENDA — 37 senators and 110 representatives are waiting on the president’s leadership to set the stage for passage of a federal law.

Equality for all Americans depends on our elected leaders moving from words to action. We’re calling on Obama to sign a federal contractor executive order regarding LGBT workplace discrimination, and we’re calling on Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. As Obama’s re-election campaign so truthfully stated, we can’t wait!

Liz Abzug is the founder/president of Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, professor of urban studies and women’s leadership at Barnard College and Columbia University, and daughter of former Rep. Bella Abzug, the first author of LGBT nondiscrimination legislation. Heather Cronk is the co-director of GetEQUAL.

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