Most Americans believe that it's already illegal to fire someone for being gay — but in reality, an employee can be fired for placing a photo of their same-sex spouse on their desk in 29 states. In 32 states, workers can be fired for being transgender. While President Obama has announced a series of executive orders to address this issue to the best of his constitutionally limited ability, advocates are still pushing for broader, more far-reaching employment protections for LGBT Americans.
That's why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — a piece of federal legislation that would make it illegal to fire, decline to promote, or refuse to hire someone based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity — has been introduced in every Congress except one since 1996.
And despite historic passage through the U.S. Senate last November — with 10 Republican senators casting votes in favor of the bill — it remains stalled in the legislative molasses known as the U.S. House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly told reporters that there is "no way" ENDA will pass the House this year, and has thus far refused to even table the legislation for a vote.
That's led advocates for workplace equality to seek alternate routes to build support for the embattled legislation. A new effort from LGBT advocacy group Freedom to Work hopes to build majority support for ENDA within the House, ideally offering an unavoidable signal to Speaker Boehner that a majority of Americans — and members of Congress in the chamber over which he presides — support such commonplace protections.
Freedom to Work's newest campaign, the 218 Project, aims to convince a majority of U.S. Representatives — 218, to be precise — to sign on as cosponsors of the legislation. There are currently 205 cosponsors of ENDA, including seven Republicans.
Throughout the summer, Freedom to Work will make weekly announcements identifying groups of five potential ENDA sponsors who are as yet uncommitted to voting for or cosponsoring the legislation. Using shareable graphics hosted on the 218 Project's website, Freedom to Work will encourage constituents to contact their lawmakers and those in other districts through Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone, urging uncommitted representatives to add their names to the growing list of ENDA cosponsors in the House.
Last month, Freedom to Work announced 10 lawmakers who the organization believes would be amenable to cosponsoring ENDA. The representatives hailed from across the geographic and political spectrum — from Democrats in Illinois and Texas to Republicans in Florida and Pennsylvania. This week, the organization puts the spotlight on five more lawmakers who it believes could be convinced by constituents to cosponsor ENDA, including Democrats in Mississippi and Georgia, and Republicans in Ohio and Washington.
Meet the lawmakers below.
Barrow, of Augusta, may be a Democrat, but he does not always side with his party. Currently, he is not a cosponsor of any of the major pieces of LGBT-focused legislation in this Congress, and he once even voted yes on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have defined marriage in the U.S. Constitution as a right only for opposite-sex couples.
“Representative Barrow is one of the remaining holdout Democrats who has not yet cosponsored ENDA even though polling shows that a majority of Georgia’s voters support LGBT workplace protections," says Christian Berle of Freedom to Work.
While Barrow's office did not return a call for comment on whether he would cosponsor ENDA, he did vote to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010. He also voted for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 as well as the LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
"He voted to repeal the discriminatory 'don't ask, don't tell' law," Berle says, "and it only makes sense that Barrow would want to make sure that an openly gay veteran does not get refused civilian employment for discriminatory reasons after he or she comes home from serving our country with honor.”
Still, Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, told the Washington Blade earlier this year that Barrow's newly redrawn district has allowed him to lean more conservatively in his statements and voting. In May a group of Barrow's constituents, including faith community leaders and a retired schoo teacher, visited his Augusta office to discuss the importance of ENDA.
Thompson has voted for multiple gay-supportive bills in the past, including the 2007 version of ENDA. Additionally, he voted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" (as well as multiple Republican-backed amendments to stifle the repeal's potency) and to support of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
“Representative Thompson has already voted for ENDA once, and as the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, he remains the only member of the Democratic Leadership who is not yet a cosponsor of this bill to create much needed LGBT workplace protections," says Berle.
His district includes Jackson and Greenville, both cities where local ordinances that have banned LGBT discrimination.
"He’d be following the lead of local Mississippi leaders in cities he represents — Jackson and Greenville — in passing laws to make sure nobody faces discrimination because of who they are or whom they love," Berle says.
Like Barrow, he is one of only a handful of remaining Democrats who have not cosponsored ENDA or said whether they would vote for it in 2014. Also like Barrow, however, Thompson voted in favor of the the antigay amendment to constitutionally deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry.