A lot can change in twenty years.
In 1994, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell had just been adopted after a failed effort to end the military ban. No states were close to marriage equality. The push for a federal hate crime law covering lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans was still years away. The Supreme Court had not yet ruled the ban on “sodomy” unconstitutional. Ellen had not yet come out.
By many measures, the LGBT equality movement has seen rapid progress over the past two decades. But by one very basic measure – whether there’s a federal law saying you can’t lose your job just because you are gay or transgender – things look a lot like they did back then. Just like in 1994, when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) legislation to end workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals was first introduced, in our country today you can still be fired for being gay.
It’s true. Despite the fact that eight in ten Americans believe the contrary, in most states it is legal under state law to fire someone because of who they are or who they love. Legal, that is, to fire someone for a trait that has nothing to do with how well they do their job.
To be clear: most Americans are not on board with this. An overwhelming majority of Americans of all political stripes support federal legislation righting this wrong. Recent national polling found that a full 86 percent of Republicans agree with the statement that “everyone has a right to earn a living – including gay, lesbian and transgender Americans – and workers should be judged on the job they do – nothing more, nothing less.”
Sounds like common sense to me, too. But apparently not to the farthest fringe of the religious right, who have been busy warning that passing ENDA will lead to everything from the bankruptcy of Christians to sexual assault and death.
Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber said earlier this month that ENDA would be used to protect child predators. Former Navy Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt warned last month that if ENDA passes, Christians could face bankruptcy or even starvation. American Family Association spokesman Bryan Fischer has shared his outrageous – not to mention bizarre – belief that “ENDA would represent the return of Jim Crow laws.” And Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver may have taken the cake with his prediction that ENDA could result in the “death of some individuals.”
That’s quite a frenzy over a law that would simply protect LGBT Americans from workplace discrimination. And as more and more conservative Americans embrace workplace protections for all, these far-right voices get even fringier.
But some in the GOP are resisting these far-right voices and standing up for decency. This summer three Republican senators joined their Democratic counterparts in a bipartisan vote that moved ENDA out of committee. Republican Senator Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiPublic lands dispute costs Utah a major trade show Oprah's network provides Senate with tape of abuse allegations by Puzder's ex-wife: report More than 100 groups back Puzder for Labor secretary MORE put it simply: “No discrimination against anyone at any time — it's pretty basic.”
It is pretty basic. And since the Senate is expected to vote on ENDA before Thanksgiving, it’s time for senators to ask themselves whether they are going to stand on the side of fringe extremists spouting wild predictions and warning that the sky is falling or on the side of basic fairness and common sense.
Because at the end of the day, ENDA is change that is long, long overdue. When teachers can still be fired for marrying their life partners, when police officers fear for their livelihoods and feel forced to lie about their loved ones day after day, when any worker feels that they have to hide their family from their colleagues in order to keep their job – it is clear that the time for ENDA is now.
Now, that is, or twenty years ago.
Marge Baker is the executive vice president of People For the American Way.