When Being Gay Can Get You Fired

Workplace protection for the nation's LGBT community is as crucial as gay marriage rights.

Last week, Philadelphia City Council became a pioneer in the advancement of civil rights when it passed groundbreaking legislation that greatly broadens equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people living and working in the city.

The bill, which was introduced by Councilman Jim Kenney with backing from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and gay rights groups, is comprised of a handful of important measures, and is being hailed as the most comprehensive legislation in the nation in support of gay equality.

But the very fact that it is necessary at all speaks to the systemic barriers homosexuals are regularly forced to confront in pursuit of the basic rights the rest of us take for granted. Only 18 states and the District of Columbia have statutes explicitly allowing homosexual couples to jointly adopt children; and in 29 states (including Pennsylvania), it’s still legal for a private employer to fire a worker simply because he or she is gay. In 34 states, it’s legal to terminate an employee for being transgender.

Meanwhile, efforts to strengthen state anti-bullying laws to include protections for gay and lesbian youth have met stiff resistance from conservative groups in places like Michigan and Arizona; and many private schools and institutions—most notably the Boy Scouts of America—continue to defend anti-gay policies.

A bill to rectify at least one of these wrongs by protecting gay workers from wrongful termination was introduced last week in the U.S. Senate. But you wouldn’t know that from the dearth of media reporting on the subject. That could be because the same-sex marriage issue has become the dominating story; or it could have something to do with the fact that every Congress since 1994, with the exception of just one, has been asked to consider legislation similar, if not identical, to the bipartisan Employee Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA).

Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ENDA, which enjoys broad-based public support, would prohibit most public and private employers from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who is one of more than 150 co-sponsors of the legislation in both houses of Congress, sees the shifting trend lines on Capitol Hill as a sign the time has come to finally pass ENDA.

“Americans understand that it’s time to make sure our LGBT friends and family are treated fairly and have the same opportunities as all Americans,” said Merkley. “Now it’s time for our laws to catch up. People should be judged at work on their ability to do the job, period.”

At the state level, lawmakers and gay rights activists in Harrisburg have labored for years to remove Pennsylvania from the list of states lacking workplace protections for LGBT people. While Pennsylvania law includes protections for state employees who are gay, and a handful of municipalities and the counties of Allegheny, Erie and Philadelphia have passed laws protecting gays and lesbians from harassment and wrongful termination, 70 percent of the commonwealth remains uncovered by LGBT non-discrimination laws. The most recent attempt to pass a statewide law, House Bill 300, was referred to the State Government Committee in April 2011, but never made it out. In March, that bill’s sponsor said he is planning to reintroduce the legislation this session.

Polls show that most Pennsylvanians support extending basic workplace protections to LGBT employees, and House Bill 300 drew the support of all of the state’s Fortune 500 companies—most of which have already voluntarily implemented their own ENDA policies. But some religious groups objected to the legislation on ideological grounds, claiming that a law protecting gays and lesbians from wrongful termination would violate their right to fire (or not hire) someone based on their moral convictions. State Rep Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, called the legislation “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Research shows he’s flat wrong about that. While recent statistics on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation are hard to come by (particularly in Pennsylvania), government studies show the problem is very much a real one.  The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School has documented “widespread” discrimination based on sexual orientation.

As the fight to legalize same-sex marriage picks up steam (and supporters) in Washington, it’s important we not forget that access to the institution of matrimony is not the only right being denied to our LGBT friends and family members. For homosexuals vying for equal status in society, legalizing same-sex marriage is an important step, but it’s not a magic pill. Until LGBT people are entitled to basic protections against discrimination, they will remain second-class citizens in a nation that prides itself on freedom and equal opportunity for all.