“This discrimination is absolutely wrong, it is morally wrong, and we must end it.”
- Senator Jeff Merkley, chief sponsor of ENDA
This week, I had the honor of attending the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s first hearing in three years on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in nonreligious workplaces with at least 15 employees. First introduced in 1994 by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, ENDA has since been reintroduced many times in many different forms. The current version of the bill was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and enjoys bipartisan support, including Republican co-sponsors Ron Kirk (IL), Olympia Snowe (ME), and Susan Collins (ME). Currently, 29 states have no anti-discrimination laws protecting gay, lesbian and bisexual workers. Transgender workers lack statutory protections in 34 states. In the words of Samuel Bagenstos, a former Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights who testified in favor of the bill, this results in a “need for a comprehensive, clear standard that applies across the country.”
Tuesday’s hearing was particularly historic because it featured the first openly transgender person to testify before the U.S. Senate. Kylar Broadus, founder of the Missouri-based Trans People of Color Coalition, told the committee about how he was fired from his job after he decided to transition from female to male, saying “It’s devastating, it’s demoralizing and dehumanizing to be put in that position. I sit here as a 50-year-old man wondering what I am going to do, and other people are in much worse situations than I.” He also testified that discrimination has caused him to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that his student loans have quadrupled as a result of underemployment. I was impressed by Kylar’s composure and bravery as he spoke publicly to a packed hearing room about his personal experiences.
Other members of the panel that spoke in favor of ENDA included Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett, research director of the Williams Institute, and Ken Charles, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at General Mills. Dr. Badgett testified that 27% of LGBT people and 47% of transgender people report discrimination in job retention, promotion, and hiring, and that this type of discrimination is reported at the same rates as women and people of color. She said of the Institute’s studies on the treatment of LGBT people in employment, “All evidence points to widespread and persistent discrimination of LGBT Americans.” General Mills’ Ken Charles spoke about the added value that anti-discrimination protections would bring to businesses, saying “It is absolutely critical that employees are able to bring their full self to work every day. That allows our organizations to grow and thrive. We believe that ENDA will unleash the potential of thousands and millions of employees to be their full selves.”
Among the items submitted for the record were two letters–one signed by 37 religious organizations, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, and another from 90 major corporations–both voicing support for ENDA and its protections for LGBT people. However, I was disheartened to notice that none of the committee’s Republican members showed up to the hearing, apparently unconcerned about the effect that employment discrimination has on the LGBT members of our communities.
During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) declared that she wants to pass ENDA out of committee “expeditiously.” Committee chair Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) responded, “I hope so.” I hope so too, Senator Harkin, I hope so too.