ENDA And America’s Journey Towards Justice For All

Terrance Heath

This week the Senate will very likely a pass a bill prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace. The President and a majority of the American people support it. Only the GOP stands in the way of an important step towards justice for all.

The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity It passed the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions by a vote of 15 to 7. Three Republicans joined Democrats on the committee in supporting the bill, thus guaranteeing that opening the door to a Senate vote on the bill.

With the last Democratic hold-outs in the fold, this week ENDA gained the support of every single Democratic senator. Sen. Dean Heller (R, Nev.)  joined fellow Republican Sens. Sue Collins (R, Minn.), Mark Kirk (R,Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (R, Alaska), and Orrin Hatch (R, Utah)  in supporting ENDA, and killed any Republican plans to filibuster the bill.

Last night the Senate voted 61 to 30 to invoke closure on ENDA. Sens. Rob Portman (R, Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R. Penn.) joined their five fellow Republicans and all the Senate Democrats in voting to bring ENDA to the floor, where it could pass the Senate with a simple majority vote as early as Wednesday.

“This,” Sen. Tom Harkins said when his committee passed ENDA, “is a good day for the committee and a good day for all of Americans.” For Republicans, however, it’s another day of reckoning in the “civil war” to wrest control of the GOP from its extremist tea party wing.

The Long Road To Justice

ENDA’s journey been short or easy. It began as a carve-out from the 1974  “Equality Act” (H.R. 14752), which would have added sexual orientation to the “protected classes” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and prohibited discrimination in employment and access to public accommodations and facilities. Introduced on the fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the “Equality Act” went nowhere.

Twenty years later, ENDA was introduced in the 103rd Congress by Rep. Gerry Studds (D, Mass) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D, Mass.). ENDA had its first Senate hearing that same year, only to die in the House and Senate Committees where it was introduced.

It was the first of many setbacks.

  • In the 104th Congress: ENDA died in the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, and failed 49 to 50 in the Senate.
  • 105th and 106th Congresses: ENDA died in committee in both the House and the Senate.
  • 107th Congress: ENDA died in the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, and died in the Senate.
  • 108th Congress: ENDA died in committee in both the House and the Senate.
  • 110th Congress: ENDA died in Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, passed 235 to 184 in the House, and died in the Senate.
  • 111th Congress: ENDA died in committee in both the House and the Senate, after hearings in both bodies.
  • 112th Congress: ENDA was referred to committees in both the House and Senate.
  • 113th Congress: ENDA was referred to committees in the House, passed the Senate Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, and referred to Senate floor for a vote.

The unending work on ENDA is a testament to nearly twenty years of work and dedication by activists and organizations. This year, activists have redoubled efforts. A bipartisan coalition of organizations has invested $2 million in a public advocacy campaign in states like Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. More than 100  business have joined in calling on Congress to pass ENDA. Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed his support for workplace equality in a Wall Street Journal Editorial.

In Washington, advocacy for nondiscrimination in the workplace has adopted a personal touch.

  • President Obama, who revealed that he was moved to support marriage by the experiences of gay members of his staff who are raising children with their partners, wrote that Congress should pass ENDA.
  • Sen. Tammy Baldwin (R, Wis.), the only openly gay member senator, has reprised her earlier role as whip leader for the House Equality Caucus, by reaching out to GOP senators.
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, Nev.), a long-time ENDA supporter who brought the bill to the floor of the Senate this week, recently revealed that he has a lesbian niece whom he believes shouldn’t be discriminated against in the workplace.

Work is where we spend most of our time not spent at home, with our families. We build relationships and friendships at work, but we work in order to support our families. That makes workplace discrimination as deeply personal an issue as marriage equality.

A Personal Journey

The vote on ENDA this week is another step in my own personal journey. My activism on workplace discrimination pre-dates ENDA, and tt brought me to Washington, to play a small role in the ENDA’s journey.

In January 1991, Cracker Barrel Country Store and Restaurants sent a memo to its restaurants. The memo instructed managers to fire employees who did not demonstrate “normative heterosexual values.”  At least 11 employees were fired as a result. One of them was Chery Summerville, a lesbian who worked for three years as a cook in a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

I was a student at the University of Georgia in 1991. I was co-director of the campus LGBT student group, and had recently joined a campus chapter of Queer Nation, a group founded by ACT-UP activists in New York City.

Summerville and other fired Cracker Barrel employees contacted the Atlanta Chapter of Queer Nation. Queer Nation chapters in Atlanta, GA; Columbia, SC; Lexington, KY; and Nashville, TN, launched protests at Cracker Barrel restaurants. Some activists took their protest to the boardroom. Queer Nation members bought shares of stock in Cracker Barrel, which gave them the right to attend shareholder meetings, where they pressed for a change in the company’s policy.

I join some of the protests at Cracker Barrel restaurants around Atlanta. The protests were molded on those of the civil rights era. We were briefed before hand to be polite to the staff and diners. We wore our Queer Nation t-shirts, waited to be seated, ordered the cheapest item on the menu, and took as long as possible to finish.

We nursed our iced teas, dawdled over appetizers, and chatted with wait staff and diners, while others handed out literature outside. We wanted make our presence and the reason for our protest known, while denying Cracker Barrel the profits from the tables we occupied. We always let the wait staff know that we weren’t trying to make things hard for them, and left them huge tips to make up for the tips they would have made from our tables.

The media attention and loss of profits led Cracker Barrel to rescind its policy, but the restaurant has been in trouble over discrimination since.

The Day I Shook Hands With Ted Kennedy

I moved to Washington, DC, in July 1994, after accepting a job with the Human Rights Campaign, just as the organization was beginning to gather co-sponsors and supporters for ENDA.  The bill was extracted from the 1974 legislation, because LGBT organization leaders believed workplace discrimination was “winnable” as a stand-alone issue.

The Senate held its first hearing on ENDA the same month that I moved to Washington. I attended the hearing along with coworkers and other activists. We arrived at the Capital Building early on the morning of the hearing, to ensure that we would find seats. It was my first experience of official Washington, and my first up-close-and-personal experience of the opposition. Lou Sheldon and his Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) arrived shortly after we did.

I stood there observing the TVC activists, who either ignored or cast scornful glances our way, as they lined up opposite us. They were just as passionately opposed to the bill as we were in favor of it. I realized that before it was over I would hear things from their side that were likely to be upsetting.

I steeled myself. Growing up a skinny, effeminate, black, gay boy in the South — during the Reagan era — had taught me many things. I learned how to stand up for myself, and defend myself with my words and my intellect, rather than my fists. I learned to “consider the source,” and ignore being called “nigger” and “faggot.” I learned not to sink to the level of those who flung those words at me. I learned not to take the bait. I learned not to flinch.

Most of all, I learned how to stand alone. Seldom was anyone on my side. Never was anyone with power and authority on my side.

I learned differently, that day.

Kennedy LionI heard a commotion behind me, as a wave of excitement traveled down the line. I turned and saw Sen. Ted Kennedy making his way down our line, shaking hands with  people who were eager to meet the liberal “Lion of the Senate.” Kennedy sponsored ENDA , and was instrumental in moving the bill through the Senate.

I was stunned to watch this man I’d only heard about and read about making his way down the line. I soon realize this would be the day I shook hands with Ted Kennedy. When Sen. Kennedy finally got to me, I was too nervous to speak. I just extended my hand to him. Kennedy looked me in the eye as he shook my hand and said, “We’re going to win this.”

He was shorter and smaller than I imagined him, but Sen. Kennedy made a huge impact on me. Here was someone with power and authority who was on my side — on our side. He didn’t have to be, and in some ways it would have been easier for him not to be. Here was someone who didn’t have to care, but did anyway.

And he seemed to believe it when he said, “We’re going to win this.”

“We’re Going To Win This”

No matter what I heard from the other side during the hearing, I just kept repeating Sen. Kennedy’s words to me: “We’re going to win this. “

Nearly twenty years later, we’re closer than ever to making Sen. Kennedy’s  words come true.  ENDA is poised to pass the Senate. The president has called on Congress to pass ENDA. Workplace equality has broad public support:

  • Nearly two-thirds of American (73 percent) favor laws to protect gay and lesbian Americans from workplace discrimination.
  • Majorities in every major religious group favor protections against employment discrimination for gay Americans, including white evangelical Protestants (59 percent), minority Protestants (61 percent), white mainline Protestants (75 percent), Catholics (76 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (84 percent).
  • Majorities of Republicans (60 percent), independents (75 percent), and Democrats (80 percent) favor workplace equality.

Support for workplace equality is stronger than it’s ever been. If ever there was an idea whose time has come, this would seem to be it. It’s ironic that workplace equality is finally getting its due, after issues that were once deemed “un-winnable” have become mainstream.

Yet, it makes sense. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, make workplace equality seem like such a given that most Americans mistakenly believe anti-LGBT workplace discrimination is already against the law. That’s how much of a “no brainer” passing ENDA is — or should be

Don’t get me wrong. We are going to win this, eventually. But we might not pass ENDA this year, because Republicans are blocking this next step in Americans progress towards realizing “justice for all.”

“There Will Be Another Day”

House Speaker John Boehner revealed that he opposes ENDA, all but quashing any chance of a vote in the House. Apparently, Boehner opposes the bill because he’s one of many Americans who mistakenly believe anti-LGBT job discrimination is already illegal. One of Boehner’s aides told a reporter, “We have always believed this is covered by existing law.” (News flash: Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws anti-gay workplace discrimination, but no federal law addresses the subject.)

Perhaps there’s another reason Boehner can’t allow a House vote on ENDA to proceed. It might pass. Sen. Harry Reid seems to think so. In a floor speech yesterday, Reid said he was “stunned” when Boehner said he wouldn’t bring ENDA to a vote in the House. “If it came up for a vote in the House,” Reid said, “it would pass.” Boehner would rather kill a popular bill than pass it, or even let House vote on it. He would rather appease the extreme right-wing of his party.

Maybe ENDA wouldn’t pass the House, if Boehner allowed a vote. Maybe it would, and the president would sign it.

We are going to win this. It will happen. Republican’s can join America’s journey towards justice for all, or they can “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” But they can’t stop it.

When ENDA lost by one vote on the Senate floor two years later, Sen. Kennedy  smiled and said to his disappointed aides, “There will be another day.”

Whatever happens on ENDA this week, I’ll keep Sen. Kennedy’s words in mind: There will be another day. We’re going to win this.

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