Jared Polis
Op-ed: There's No Excuse for Discrimination at Work

By Jared Polis

Originally published on Advocate.com May 09 2013 3:00 AM ET

Did you know that in more than half of the country it is still legal for a boss to fire someone just because of who they are dating or how they identify? While it sounds absurd, for thousands of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Americans in states like Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania, it is all too real. The need for a national Employment Non-Discrimination Act a critical part of the LGBT community’s struggle for equality. No American should have to live in constant fear that their employer can fire them just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the last few years, we have made major strides toward equality for the LGBT community at the federal level, such as the passage of an inclusive Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which for the first time included explicit protections for the LGBT community, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Major political figures, from the president and vice president to almost every Democratic senator, have come out in support of marriage equality. We have come a long way. But there is still so much more to do before every LGBT person in the country has true equality.

This year is the first year I have the tremendous honor and responsibility of introducing ENDA in the House of Representatives. The bill’s original author, Rep. Barney Frank, retired last year and asked me to take on this important cause. I am proud to be working with Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to move this important piece of legislation forward in the House and with senators Jeff Merkley and Mark Kirk in the Senate.

Some states, including my home state of Colorado, already prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. Unfortunately, 34 states have failed to ensure that transgender workers have this basic right. Twenty-nine states do not even prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Simply displaying a picture on your desk of you and your same-sex partner can be grounds for being fired in those 29 states.

Instead, members of the LGBT community are often forced to choose between being true to themselves and honest at work or risk getting fired or denied job opportunities. I have heard countless stories of individuals such as Kimya from Michigan, who after coming out faced threatening messages, vandalism, and discrimination at work, only to be ultimately fired for being a lesbian.

Even universities, which are considered centers of “liberal thought” in otherwise conservative communities, have fired individuals for revealing their identity as a member of the LGBT community. Kathleen in Iowa was fired when her department administrator at the University of Iowa told her that because she was transgender and would be transitioning from male to female, she was no longer needed in the lab.

Members of the LGBT community should feel welcome and know their rights are protected regardless of what state they reside in. That is why it is critical for Congress to pass a federal law that will protect every American worker from facing discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Having to censor yourself — whether it’s lying at the water cooler about how you spent your weekend, scrubbing your Facebook page of any revealing facts, or pretending to be with someone you aren’t — is the antithesis of our foundation as a nation based on freedom of expression and association.

Unfortunately, many Americans fail to realize what you and I may be keenly aware of: In the majority of states in this country it is still perfectly legal to be fired, denied a promotion or be otherwise harassed because of who you are or who you love. That’s why I am asking for your help. Take the time to educate your friends and family, your coworkers, and your peers. Tell them how this issue impacts you.  Each and every member of the LGBT community who has come out to their family and friends has played a critical role in changing public opinion when it comes to protecting the rights of the LGBT community. It's simply contrary to our values as Americans that a boss should be able to get into the personal business of their employees and fire them because of perfectly legal things they do on their own time.

Take the time to contact your representatives and make sure they are cosponsors of ENDA. Ask those who care about equality and those who care about you to do the same. Before long, I hope we will be signing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into law and celebrating another important milestone in the march toward full equality by making workplace discrimination illegal.

 

JARED POLIS is a congressman from Colorado.