With the nation awaiting President Obama’s jobs speech later this week, some advocates are hoping for a mention of employment protections for LGBT workers.
Justin Tanis, spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, said the Thursday speech before a joint session of Congress is “absolutely” an opportunity for Obama to address the absence of federal protections for LGBT workers.
“I think any serious plan to get Americans back to work has to look at the forces that are keeping Americans from working — and it’s clear that homophobia and transphobia are still very present in the lives of LGBT people,” Tanis said. “As long as our country fails to address those, discrimination is going to continue.”
While some states have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against LGBT workers, in many places these protections are non-existent. Firing a person based on sexual orientation is legal in 29 states, while firing someone based on gender identity is legal in 35 states.
Federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in most situations in the public and private workforce is known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The bill is sponsored by gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
Tanis said Obama should express “vigorous support” for the enactment of employment protections such as ENDA in Congress during his much-anticipated jobs speech.
“It’s clear there needs to be a long-term plan for addressing anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace whether it takes the form of ENDA or other measures,” Tanis said.
Whether President Obama will spend political capital to address the lack of non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers remains to be seen. A White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether the speech would be LGBT-inclusive.
Last week, the monthly jobs report from the Labor Department revealed that the unemployment rate remains fixed at 9.1 percent and a net of zero job growth took place in August.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week the proposals Obama will unveil on Thursday would “absolutely” change these numbers into something more positive.
“The president will come forward with specific proposals that by any objective measure would add to growth and job creation in the short term,” Carney said. “And that will be part of a broad package that reflects his commitment to grow the economy now and to build a foundation for economic growth for the future to ensure that we win the future.”
Some LGBT advocates are skeptical that these proposed policy changes would be inclusive of ENDA or, more generally, the lack of federal job protections for LGBT workers.
Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, said he thinks the incorporation of LGBT job protections as part of these measures would be “highly unrealistic.”
“I don’t think they will see the connection,” Socarides said. “To be candid, I don’t think it’s a particularly good strategic opportunity. I think that all Americans — including LGBT Americans — want to see the economy improve and for the administration’s policies to create jobs.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she doesn’t know enough about the president’s speech to say whether Obama should address the lack of federal job protections for LGBT Americans.
“I would bet he’s not likely to, and I don’t know enough about the speech to know if he should,” Keisling said. “If it’s a speech just about rebuilding infrastructure, it probably isn’t all that appropriate. If it’s an overall getting people working thing, it may be appropriate.”
Keisling said the most important part of the speech — even for LGBT people — is “there’ll be jobs for us to have because the economy is really, really hurting.”
Still, the jobs speech could be an opportunity for Obama to unveil an administrative action he could take on his own to prevent some LGBT Americans from experiencing discrimination in the workplace.
With Congress unlikely to act on ENDA as long as Republicans remain in control of the House, some LGBT advocates have called for an executive order barring the federal government from contracting with companies that don’t have their own non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Carney last week said the proposals Obama would unveil on Thursday would be both legislative and administrative. An executive order barring LGBT job bias among federal contractors could fall into this latter category.
But Carney emphasized that regulatory changes — as opposed to an executive order — would be the administrative means by which the president would address the job situation.
“He can also do things, as he has in the past, administratively that can help the economy grow, that can … relieve businesses from burdensome regulations; other measures he can take administratively that don’t require legislative action, he will continue to do that as well,” Carney said.
Socarides said Obama could unveil an executive order barring LGBT job bias among federal contractors at any time even without the jobs speech as a backdrop,
“Any day and everyday is a good day to do that,” Socarides said. “You don’t need a special day or a special day or a special speech. I would be surprised if they were considering it in the context of a jobs creation speech, but it is important.”