January 22, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Advocates seek LGBT inclusion in State of the Union
Joint Session of Congress, gay news, Washington Blade, Barack Obama

Advocates are calling on President Obama to mention LGBT workers during his upcoming State of the Union address. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Amid expectations that President Obama will issue a national call to address income equality in his upcoming State of the Union address, some advocates are asking him to take the opportunity to speak out against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.

With no explicit federal language in place protecting LGBT workers from job discrimination, advocates are calling on Obama to incorporate as part of his speech a call to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a pledge to sign an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.

The details of the speech are under wraps, but Obama already hinted earlier this month the address — which will be delivered Tuesday before a joint session of Congress — will seek to mobilize the country to ensure “the economy offers every American who works hard a fair shot at success.”

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said including the executive order or ENDA in the speech would fit right in with the president’s larger theme.

“The president is going to spend much of his State of the Union talking about economic inequalities and it’s important that he highlight those faced by the LGBT community,” Sainz said. “There are many ways to address these issues including signing a federal contractor non-discrimination executive order and calling on Congress to send ENDA to him for his signature.”

The call for inclusion of the executive order and ENDA in the State of the Union is the same request that LGBT advocates made early in 2013 prior to that year’s speech. Instead, Obama made a veiled reference to gay people when he said the economy should work for Americans “no matter…who you love” and gave himself props for starting the process to secure partner benefits for gay troops.

But the situation has changed this time around. The Senate last year passed ENDA on a bipartisan basis by a 64-32 vote. The only thing stopping ENDA from reaching Obama’s desk is House Republican leadership. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly said he opposes the bill when asked if he’ll allow a vote on it.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said including ENDA in the State of the Union would place significant pressure on Boehner to move forward.

“By explicitly calling on Speaker Boehner to allow ENDA to come to a vote, and by explaining the current gaps in employment law to the American people, President Obama can help build political momentum and do important public education to help correct the fact that 80 or 90 percent of Americans mistakenly think ENDA is already law,” Almeida said. “The president’s words would be a catalyst for millions of important conversations around the country.”

Almeida pointed to Obama’s words in his previous State of the Union speech calling for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act as “model language” for what he could say about ENDA. Following that speech, the House voted to send  an LGBT-inclusive VAWA reauthorization to Obama’s desk after a version without the protections failed on the House floor.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Obama will include a reference to ENDA or the executive order in the State of the Union address.

If Obama calls for passage of ENDA during the State of the Union, it wouldn’t be the first time that a president has mentioned the legislation during the annual speech. In 1999, then-President Clinton said discrimination based on factors such as sexual orientation “is wrong and it ought to be illegal,” calling on Congress to turn ENDA as well as hate crimes protections into law.

As for the executive order, Obama has recently threatened to take executive action if Congress fails to act on legislation important to his agenda. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said he had no updates when asked by the Blade if the use of the pen applies to non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers, but suggested Obama would take the route only for other agenda items.

Still, the lingering issue of LGBT workplace discrimination isn’t the only issue advocates want addressed during the State of the Union.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said ENDA and the executive order are part of a group of agenda items Obama should mention during his speech “to build on his stellar track record in the area of LGBT freedoms and justice.”

“This includes signing an executive order that bans discrimination against LGBT people working for federal contractors and pushing Congress on passing ENDA and fair immigration reform legislation,” Carey said. “We would also like to see him include LGBT people and families as examples in his references to domestic issues that all Americans care about such as jobs, the economy, and health care. And finally, we would like him to use use the word ‘transgender’ and to call for an end to violence against transgender people.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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