Obama Sidesteps Do-Nothing Congress to Protect LGBT Employees

There's an end in sight for unchecked discrimination against federal workers.

(Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Jun 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

Tired of waiting for movement on the comprehensive LGBT antidiscrimination act that has been stalled in Congress since last year, President Barack Obama is taking workplace equality into his own hands. This week, the commander in chief directed his staff to prepare an Executive Order that bars discriminaton against federal employees based on their sexual orientation or identity.

This action builds upon protections already in place for discrimination based on race, gender, or sex.

“Today, millions of Americans in most states in the country go to work every day knowing they could lose their jobs simply because of who they are or who they love,” a White House official wrote in an email to Take Part. “No current federal law adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers from employment discrimination.”

Obama’s decision was announced Monday and it was quickly endorsed by LGBT groups, public figures, and his own staff. White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett tweeted that workplace equality is good for business:

Apple CEO Tim Cook called the discrimination protection a matter of “human dignity,” and urged the House of Representatives to pass the stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act:

Although details of the order are yet to be seen, LGBT supporters say it will have a significant impact on equality in the workplace. There is currently no federal law protecting LGBT individuals from employment discrimination, but federal contractors employ more than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, which means Obama’s action will protect more than 11 million people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The order may prove especially effective with large businesses, like Exxon Mobil Corporation, which receives “hundreds of millions” in federal contracts each year and has repeatedly rejected a policy prohibiting discrimination against LGBT workers, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“This order will bring much-needed relief to ExxonMobil’s LGBT employees,” said HRC President Chad Griffin.

Exxon officials have responded to criticism of their employment practices by pointing to a statement on their website that reads:

Our global zero-tolerance policy applies to all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, the binding policy that appears in the Company's Standards of Business Conduct does not include any mention of specific LGBT protections, the Huffington Post reports.

And while ExxonMobil may be the minority, as most Fotune 500 companies do have LGBT discrimination protections, there are still many states in the U.S. that do not. There are currently 29 states in the U.S. that don’t have explicit laws protecting LGBT workers from employment or hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This means there’s still a huge number of people who have to hide their personal lives when they go into the workplace, said Ian Thompson, ACLU legislative representative.

“Most people would find that to be completely unacceptable,” said Thompson.

The pending executive order is an important step forward, said Thompson, but what the country really needs is for Congress to approve a robust, antidiscrimination bill protecting all Americans from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the senate in 2013, but is now stuck in the House of Representatives with no sign of moving out of the hands of conservative legislators there.

Even if ENDA does go through, the bill isn’t as all-inclusive as it seems. It provides exemptions for military institutions and small businesses, and doesn’t apply to religious corporations, associations, or educational institutions. Some LGBT advocates are worried the broad terms used in regard to religious groups may give them a blank check to discriminate against gay employees or applicants, and could leave out workers at hospitals and universities across the country.

While Obama’s executive order is an effective way to at least partially sidestep delays in Congress, the timing of his announcement seems largely strategic: Obama is scheduled to appear Tuesday evening at the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Gala in New York.