fresh voices from the front lines of change







House Speaker John Boehner says he opposes the Employment Nondiscrimination Act because it will lead to “frivolous lawsuits” against employers. For the people who live with it every day, workplace discrimination is anything but frivolous.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quick to respond to via Twitter:

Reid had even more to say a bit later.

“Not only is Speaker Boehner’s claim untrue, it is also callous. It fails to take into account the heartbreak and suffering — not to mention lost wages and productivity — that workplace discrimination causes,” Reid said.

I worked on ENDA when I moved to Washington in 1994. Part of my job was collecting stories of  people who had experienced workplace discrimination based on their sexual orientation. I spent hours on the phone with people wanting to tell their stories.

At first I tried to hurry through the calls, checking my list of questions I had to ask, and quickly recording the details so that I could go on to the next call. After a couple of calls, I realized my approach wasn’t working.

I was talking to people who had endured almost daily harassment at work because of their sexual orientation. Their livelihoods were threatened, or already lost. Some were physically attacked. Some were on the verge of bankruptcy. Some were destitute, and struggling just survive.

Most of the people I talk to had no support, and no one to even talk to about what happened to them. They’d all been told that there was nothing that could be done. What had happened to them was perfectly legal.

I realized that the first thing that these people wanted and needed was for someone to just listen, and validate that was happened to them was real, that it mattered; that they mattered. I tried to do those things for them as I listened.

I doubt John Boehner has listened to stories like those I heard.

I heard Ernest Dillon tell his story at the first Senate hearing on ENDA. Dillon, a postal worker from Michigan, may or may not have been gay, but he was perceived as gay by his coworkers. Dillon  suffered humiliation and injury because he male coworkers believed him to be gay.

Dillon sued his employer, and the court cataloged what he’d endured.

This case concerns his departure from that employment. During his tenure, Dillon was taunted, ostracized, and physically beaten by his co-workers because of their belief that he was a homosexual. Dillon contends that he left the employ of the Postal Service because of the cruel treatment he received from his co-workers.

Dillon worked as a mail handler at the Bulk Mail Center at Allen Park, Michigan. He started work in 1980, but his difficulties did not begin until late 1984.A fellow employee, Kenneth Barrett, began calling Dillon “fag,” and saying that “Dillon sucks dicks.” Barrett also pushed materials into Dillon’s work area, and turned off the bathroom lights when Dillon entered. This continued for five months, culminating in a physical assault by Barrett on Dillon in which Dillon suffered numerous injuries. The Postal Service fired Barrett as a result.

This did not end Dillon’s travails. What had begun as a one-man band expanded into a full orchestral assault of verbal abuse. Other employees used similar epithets. Graffiti, the last refuge of the courageous, appeared on conveyor belts and Dillon’s loading trucks informing the mail center that “Dillon sucks dicks” and “Dillon gives head.” Dillon endured these circumstances for three years before he finally resigned in 1988 upon advice from his psychiatrist.

Dillon’s employer knew what was going on, because he complained to eight different supervisors and two union representatives. Management admonished the harassers, and spent a few meetings detailing the sexual harassment policy. That was it. When Dillon complained that the harassment continued, management told him to “fight back” and stop wasting their time.

The American Civil Liberties Union published several stories of discrimination in Working In The Shadows: Ending Employment Discrimination for LGBT Americans:

  • Janice Dye moved to San Diego to be with her partner, and got a job as a mechanic in an oil changing service center. Dye was out at work, and got along well with the other mechanics, despite being the only lesbian and the only African-American in the shop. Management was not supportive. When Dye applied for a promotion, she was required to perform an oil change alone, even though the usual procedure was to use two employees to perform and oil change. Dye was fired for failing to complete an oil change in the 10 minutes normally required with two workers. Coworkers overheard managers in the break-room saying “we won’t let that lesbo bitch get that job.”
  • Brad Nadeau received positive performance reviews at the Bangor, Maine, insurance firm where he worked in receptions. Nadeau was not out at work, because he was concerned that he might lose his job. On June 2, 2002, Nadeau’s partner picked him up at work, and the two of them went out for lunch. When his partner brought Nadeau back to the office, they kissed goodbye in the parking lot. Nadeau noticed that an agency executive saw the kiss, and saw the executive and his supervisor meeting behind closed doors later that day. Nadeau was called into a meeting with his supervisor and the executive. Nadeau’s supervisor told him he was being fired because his work was unsatisfactory, despite having just received a positive performance review.
  • Lynda Cyzyk interviewed for a job at a law firm in Virginia, where her partner has accepted a job as a university professor. When asked why she was moving to Virginia, Cyzyk replied that her spouse had recently accepted a job at a university, taking care not to use gender-specific pronouns. When Cyzyk was invited back for a third interview, she told to bring her spouse because the interview would include a dinner with the all the partners and their spouses. Cyzyk told a female partner that her spouse was another woman. The female partner said it was fine by her, but that she would have to tell the other two partners. After speaking to the two male partners, the female partner called Cyzyk to tell her that the two male partners would not hire a lesbian, and not to bother coming to the third interview.

Brooke Waits, a Texas cell phone company worker told a House committee about the day she was fired, after her supervisor looked at her personal cell phone and saw a picture of Waits kissing her girlfriend


At the same hearing, Michael Carney — a Springfield, MA, police officer — told committee members why he chose to remain closeted at work.


Shari Hutchinson faced harassment in the workplace, after coworkers learned she was a lesbian.


Shari Hutchinson was hired as a Support Officer in the Child Support Enforcement Agency for Cuyahoga County, Ohio. She holds an Executive Masters of Business Administration degree and she had almost twenty years of private sector management experience prior to working for the Agency, so she was eager to move up the career ladder. However, after her co-workers and managers learned that Shari is lesbian, they spread false rumors about her and repeatedly passed her over for promotions that went to significantly less qualified applicants, including heterosexual candidates who did not even pass the required tests or comply with the Agency’s application procedures

Hutchinson claimed she had been passed over for promotion as many as 25 times. She filed a lawsuit in federal court based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. When Hutchinson’s employer tried to argue that Hutchinson’s case should be dismissed, because sexual orientation was not a protected class. The judge rejected this argument, and the case was settled out of court.

A 2011 Williams Institute study found that 42 percent of gay and lesbian workers have experience some form of workplace discrimination, while 90 percent of transgender workers have faced some form of harassment, discrimination or mistreatment on the job. Hardly “frivolous,” especially in light of a study suggesting that 19 percent of Americans do not consider themselves heterosexual.

Research shows that discrimination has a devastating effect on LGBT workers. A 2007 University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Rice University study found that workers’ “fears about disclosing a gay identity at work had an overwhelmingly negative relationship with their career and workplace experiences and with their psychological well-being.” The Williams Institute’s Ilan Meyer confirmed earlier research.

“Research shows that LGBT employees who have experienced employment discrimination, or fear discrimination, have higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems, less job satisfaction and higher rates of absenteeism, and are more likely to contemplate quitting than LGBT employees who have not experienced or do not fear discrimination.”

Workers who fear begin fired because of their sexual orientation are likely to have less job satisfaction, less commitment to their jobs, and more absenteeism due to the physical and psychological effects of discrimination. All of which results in less productivity.

What’s bad for workers is often bad for business. A 2012 Center for American Progress report, “The Costly Business of Discrimination,” found that losing and replacing the more than 2 million Americans who leave their jobs due to discrimination costs businesses about $64 billion a year. The cost of replacing a departing employee can range from $5,000 to $10,000 for hourly workers, and $75,000 to $211,000 for executives.

The psychological and emotional costs to workers, and the financial costs to businesses, caused by anti-LGBT discrimination are hardly “frivolous.” But calling them “frivolous” is definitely callous. Sen. Reid couldn’t be more right.

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