Analysis by Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
President Barack Obama today signed the long-awaited executive order protecting workers at federal contractors and in the federal government from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I firmly believe that it’s time to address this injustice for every American,” Pres. Obama told a group of LGBT activists gathered in the East Room of the White House as he signed the order, indicating too that, “we’re on the right side of history.”
It’s been 33 years since I came, along with my boyfriend Christopher and another couple that included a gay childhood schoolmate, to West Hollywood from Milwaukee. I interviewed for only one position, a retail position in furniture, although not in design.
Fearing a reprise of the arbitrariness showed me when the Air Force realized I was gay before me (another story) and I was discharged from the job of most musicians’ dreams – playing in the Air Force Band, at the end of the interview I asked two questions.
“I heard retail floors don’t encourage facial hair, so I shaved for this interview; may I grow the beard back?” My second question shook the manager visibly, and I learned later why. I asked, “I’m gay; is that going to present any problems?”
It turned out that he and several other influential managers in the then-small chain of stores were closeted gays fearful of letting people know, too apprehensive about unpredictable consequences following from allowing someone to get to know the real them in any meaningful way – and doing so because of observation and experience, on bedrock principle and by minute-to-minute practice over an entire lifetime.
The ability of employers here in California to deprive you of the employment they originally gave you based on being an L, a G, a B or a T has been settled for a long time – this order does nothing here.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has so far failed to muster votes enough to get through Congress despite decades of trying by Democrats. Liberal gay lion Barney Frank worked hard every Congress to pass ENDA, but resistance came at many levels.
With only the stroke of a pen (it’s actually quite a few pens at one letter per so they can be distributed afterward as official mementoes), President Barak Obama once again made history when he abolished employment discrimination at the roughly 24,000 companies that hold government contracts. Those companies employ over 28 million workers, fully one-in-five American workers.
The administration had held off on issuance of the order to give Congress a chance to legislate on it. The Senate cast a bipartisan vote in favor of ENDA, 64-32.
The people’s house, the House of Representatives, has so far declined to bring the bill to a vote (surprise). If the Democrats in mid-terms this year can channel the president’s exasperation with congress, they might not lose as many seats as expected.
Why? The president said, “I’m gonna do what I can with the authority I have” to protect workers from arbitrary loss and from the daily fear and instability that breeds. “This is not speculative, this is not a matter of political correctness. People lose their jobs.”
It’s not only a civil rights issue, it’s a jobs and justice issue.
The executive order, as Politico reports the president reminding the crowd in the East Room, “is just the latest development in the rapid expansion of rights for LGBT Americans.”
It’s a reminder, he said, of, “extraordinary progress that we have made not just in our lifetimes but in the last five years, the last two years, the last one year.”
In our lifetimes is correct, the public demand for rights, equality and dignity began over 35 years ago, with the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights’ platform that contained the employment non-discrimination plank, although at that time no gay or lesbian leader would publicly utter the word transgender, let alone tie the “gay and lesbian community” to the transgender community’s fate.
Back then, protecting their financial position was of the utmost concern for the lesbian and gay marchers and marriage equality goes unmentioned (except obliquely); marriage was seen as a bridge too far by strategists.
So the demands they made were legal and economic in nature:
“Pass a comprehensive lesbian/gay rights bill in Congress; Repeal all anti-lesbian/gay laws; Issue a presidential executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal government, the military, and federally contracted private employment; End discrimination in child custody cases.”
As you see, marriage fails to make the grade, but is addressed tangentially through legal constructs that preserve parent/child bonds, a primary argument used by marriage equality advocates; simply including LGBTs in the institution cuts the Gordian Knot.
Up until that time, homosexuality was dealt with as secretly as possible – like out-of-wedlock pregnancies, or firings stemming from uncomfortable circumstances (“If I hired him in the first place,” many a business man thought in panic, “does that make me that way, too?”).
The worst thing that could happen to any middle-American would be the exposure of a gay man’s secret to the community. Every one lost his family. Those men most often had to move and start over again (preferably to the big, Anonymous city). Some committed suicide.
And every one of them was subject to any discrimination or perversion of the law at the disposal of the power structures in any community. Even in the big cities the police kept a close watch on the gay community and would threaten exposure to employers as a way to “develop” sources.
When firing gays and lesbians, employers or landlords need not have to prove anything; they need only suspect people to be gay and they could fire them. If anyone questioned them, they needed only to say, “They were gay.” Conversation over.
Therefore the Executive Order is historic for that one reason more than the number of gays and lesbians and transgenders it keeps secure from arbitrary loss of income; the executive order is a huge step to ensuring the continued success of the movement by shining a huge, nurturing light upon it.
One might call it the “Coming out at work” order. Or the “Workplace LGBT Primer” education program. People, institutions and organizations discriminate against other people largely out of ignorance and prejudice.
As we were reminded above, being coerced to accept new, accurate information that supplants irrational fears and prejudicial thoughts threatens people who rely on belief/think.
When queer people began “coming out” where they felt secure, a snowball effect ensued that gathered, as does an avalanche, a critical mass of progress that brought along with it a sea change in attitudes about queers in families, fellow workers, students and friends of lesbian and gay people.
The phenomenon of public and social education we see today was actually invoked presciently by the final paragraph in that 1975 March on Washington’s program of events and speakers.
“Today in the capital of America, we are all here, the almost liberated and the slightly repressed; the butch, the femme and everything in-between; the androgynous; the monogamous and the promiscuous; the masturbators and the fellators and the tribadists; men in dresses and women in neckties; those who bite and those who cuddle; celebates[sic] and pederasts; diesel dykes and nelly queens; amazons and size queens, Yellow, Black, Brown, White, and Red; the shorthaired and the long, the fat and the thin; the nude and the prude; the beauties and the beasts; the studs and the duds; the communes, the couples, and the singles; pubescents and the octogenarians.
“Yes, we are all here! We are everywhere! ,” it said.
So now the coming out of the nation’s LGBT community will be hastened further by workforce changes, not unlike those accelerations of the black civil rights struggle that came out of President Truman’s de-segregating the military using such an order.
The 28 million people who work elbow-to-elbow with formerly discriminated against people will now be given a chance to get to know LGBT co-workers and the company’s vendors LGBT co-workers without fear of reprisal.
Those 28 million families will now see up close that, “Bill is good on the lathe, he’s actually kinda a nice guy. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s got a kid and a partner and a house; he sure shouldn’t be fired for something he is having nothing to do with the job.”
West Hollywood’s congress member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), is also vice chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus (Equality Caucus) and had this to say about the presidential order.
“With Republicans still unwilling to bring up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the House – despite bipartisan support during passage in the Senate – the President was right to act to protect LGBT workers in the federal government from being discriminated against. We should be using every avenue available to fight discrimination – it’s just the right thing to do.
“Nevertheless, this does not free Congress from the responsibility to pass ENDA and protect all workers from discrimination and we must continue to call for such action, and work to narrow the exemption granted to religious organizations.”
The statement he sent out said that Congress member is an original co-sponsor of the bipartisan Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which passed the U.S. Senate in November 2013. ENDA currently has 205 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would establish basic protections in the workplace to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are currently only 18 states (including California) and the District of Columbia that prohibit discrimination on bases of sexual orientation and gender identity, and an additional 3 states that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation alone.
ENDA would provide a basic level of protection against workplace discrimination in a manner modeled closely on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would apply to private employers as well as local, state, and federal government employers.
The president’s executive order does amend similar orders affecting race, color, national origin or religion signed by two of his predecessors, Presidents Johnson and Reagan; Johnson’s prohibited discrimination in contractors and Nixon proffered the same protections to federal employees.
The exemptions asked for would affect contractors with religious objections, even though this exemptions remained in place from the 2002 amendment to Johnson’s order, signed in 2002 by George W. Bush, that allows those employers to favor workers of their own faith for religious roles, such as members of the clergy.
One of the more telling response came from the Family Research Council. Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy there, released a statement in which he claims that Pres. Obama is ordering “employers to put aside their principles and practices in the name of political correctness.
“This level of coercion is nothing less than viewpoint blackmail that bullies into silence every contractor and subcontractor who has moral objections to homosexual behavior. This order gives activists a license to challenge their employers and, expose those employers to threats of costly legal proceedings and the potential of jeopardizing future contracts.”
If you take away the hyperbole and bias in the argument, he is essentially correct. It requires employers to treat their LGBT employees with the same baseline dignity and respect it asks them to use toward non-oppressed people.
He calls the order coercion and “viewpoint blackmail” (wouldn’t that be rainbow mail, or at the least lavender mail?) that gays would use to “challenge their employers and, expose those employers to threats of costly legal proceedings.” Coercion is what the government does – it’s consensual because of our system, but it’s coercion nonetheless.
He hits it right on when he blames the government of “viewpoint blackmail” because persuasion is the other thing government does when it cannot coerce.
The religious right did not express such umbrage when, in late June, the Supreme Court decided last month that a mostly-Christian invocation in a mostly-Christian community failed to meet the “establishment clause” regarding the state and religion in the constitution, allowing those who would to pray to Jesus.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation published a guide that assists with transgenders facaing employment challenges and opportunities presented by living as authentically as possible.