Gay Marriage is Not As Important As the Employment Non-Discrimination Act

With all the talk about marriage equality, a bill fundamental to protecting the rights of LGBTQ people has almost slipped under the radar: however, it is perhaps the single piece of legislation most critical to the LGBTQ movement. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (or ENDA for short) has been introduced in the House and Senate more than times.  Its premise is simple:  employers should not be able to legally discriminate against LGBTQ people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Yet, in spite of its simple framework, ENDA has been proposed in every Congress since 1994, and never been passed.  Now is the time.

One of the most important parts of ENDA this time around is one that has been historically contested: legal protection based on gender identity, is crucial for the quality of life of LGBT people, particularly transgender people.  Transgender people require legal protection due to the incredible discrimination they face in the workforce:  ninety percent of transgender people report facing “harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination” at work.  These instances of discrimination tend to not occur based on the sexual practices of these workers, which, with notable exceptions like Jeffery Dion Bruton, are rarely displayed to employers, but because of their gender identity and expression. The Gill Foundation articulates gender expression and identity as “the way we manifest our femininity or masculinity… the way we style our hair, select our clothing, or even the way we stand.” Transgender people are four times as likely as the general population to live in extreme poverty, undoubtedly related to discrimination in hiring practices and in challenges related to discrimination in the workplace, making a bill like ENDA that would prohibit such discrimination particularly salient in improving the quality of life of LGBT persons. 

Yet that aspect of the bill has been challenged:  in 2007, then Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) proposed a bill supported by the Human Rights Campaign that excluded gender identity from ENDA, which, while it inspired significant ire from transgender activists.  Since then, gender identity has been included in every version of ENDA introduced in the House or the Senate, a vital part of the bill considering the daily harassment and discrimination that with non-normative gender identities. 

Freedom from being fired arbitrarily based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity should be guaranteed.  However, in the United States, that is not the case, in spite of the fact that most Americans assume that the provisions of ENDA are already law.  While over 17 states possess effective employment protections, it remains legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in many states across the country.  More so perhaps than marriage, the banner head for the LGBTQ movement after the Supreme Court heard the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage challenges this March, employment non-discrimination is a crucial part of defending the quality of life for all LGBT people.  The time is now:  ENDA must pass through the House and Senate once and for all, and make the LGBTQ movement one about real progress.