As I told President Obama in an email last week, his executive order to bar discrimination against LGBT workers like me among federal contractors is an important step in the struggle for full workplace equality.
As a gay man I have firsthand knowledge of what it is like to have my livelihood threatened due to discrimination. Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, North Carloina, tried to have me fired in July 1994 for “promoting the gay agenda.” It was a ridiculous, but, at the time, politically incendiary, charge.
My work was aimed to assist highly motivated LGBT employees, long excluded from career positions due solely to discrimination, to advance to increasingly responsible positions. Again, it was too much for Jesse Helms.
Helms introduced his amendment to the USDA annual appropriations bill to “end the use of taxpayer funds to encourage employees to accept homosexuality as a legitimate or normal lifestyle.” This language, like Helms himself, seems prehistoric given the sea change in social views about gay civil rights and marriage equality in the past twenty years. Yet, traditional LGBT Senate allies voted for this legislative discrimination which I saw hurt the careers and lives of many civil servants.
Though change has been wide and has improved our lives as LGBT Americans, much needs to be done. In 1994, LGBT workers needed employment protections even from the Senate due to the power of hate in one man, Jesse Helms. The Senate is an LGBT friendlier place today but the Republican-controlled House remains resistant to workplace equality and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would bar LGBT discrimination in most workplaces. As a Republican, my party shames me.
For the past twenty years I have worked to make ENDA a reality for LGBT workers. Success has been slow. Maybe details on my 1994 experience, from the Congressional Record and CSPAN archives, will help will House members and others support ENDA. I saw the CSPAN video for the first time in March and it disturbs me still.
Immediately after Helms introduced his amendment to fire me for “promoting the gay agenda” and “recruiting” gays for federal jobs, I experienced more discrimination at work. Physically and mentally, I was a wreck. I became depressed and suicidal.
As my depression deepened, my anger at Helms overpowered me. I sought help from my Episcopal priest, but I could not confess I wanted to kill Jesse Helms. I prayed for help but the urge became too great. I took a letter opener to his office in the Senate Dirksen Building but left without an incident.
ENDA can stop hate acts by people like Jesse Helms directed at people like me who want only to work and serve our Nation. Helms is dead seven years but workplace discrimination against LGBT workers continues. It is time to bring it to an end. Congress should pass ENDA in 2014 to make workplaces save from bigotry and the violence it causes.
Patterson, a former Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, is a dissenting life member of the Republican National Committee.