Just moments ago, I was standing in the East Room of the White House as President Obama signed two historic executive orders.
For the first time in the history of our country, federal contractors can no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and transgender employees in the federal civil service are explicitly protected from discrimination.
Through this executive action, LGBT workers will be judged on the same terms as all other employees—by their credentials and performance— nothing more, nothing less.
Importantly, these executive orders do not include overly broad religious exemptions that would have left LGBT workers vulnerable to discrimination and that would have set a dangerous precedent for future legislation at the state and federal level.
Two weeks ago, Equality Federation, along with 45 state LGBT advocacy organizations, called on the president to reject broad religious exemptions and send a clear message that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will be treated no differently from other forms of discrimination.
Today, we are thrilled that the president heard our voices and grateful that he heeded our call. These executive orders ensure that thousands of hardworking LGBT employees are given a level playing field to succeed.
And yet, we know we have more work to do. Millions of hardworking, tax-paying LGBT Americans remain unprotected from discrimination at work, at home and in their communities. And while today shows us that we’re making incredible, unprecedented progress toward equality for LGBT people, we can’t rest yet.
Let’s seize the current momentum and build on today’s executive orders to win critical nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people on both the state and federal level.
It’s time for a comprehensive federal nondiscrimination bill. For years, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been our movement’s top federal legislative priority. While we applaud all of the efforts to pass ENDA by our colleagues and legislative allies, we urge the next Congress to introduce a comprehensive bill that addresses discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations like the comprehensive laws we have passed in many states.
This comprehensive legislation to protect LGBT people from discrimination in all facets of life must not treat sexual orientation and gender identity differently than other kinds of discrimination barred by federal law.
Federal laws—and even proposed laws like ENDA—are often used as standards or guidelines for state and local lawmakers. Adding dangerous religious exemptions into any federal law would make it much more difficult for state advocates to advance legislation without them. And it won’t just be the states without current protections that will be harmed. Leaders in states with strong nondiscrimination laws believe that a broad federal religious exemption will become an excuse for lawmakers in their states to weaken existing protections.
Even with a comprehensive bill at the federal level, our work in the states is more urgent than ever. Our efforts are paying off — we have passed inclusive discrimination bans in 18 states and hundreds of municipalities. We’ve made great strides, but we must keep working for change in the communities we call home.
As gridlock in Congress remains, our campaigns at the local and state level secure critical protections for more and more LGBT Americans. But they do more than that.
These efforts provide opportunities to engage in positive, productive public education about the real harms our communities face. They help to establish facts that make creating a case for further legislation easier. And they create political power and forge political partnerships with policymakers at every level. In short, state and local work builds the support and momentum that fuels any successful federal policy change.
Together, our movement can secure comprehensive nondiscrimination protections at the federal level in the next few years—but only if we all do the hard work it takes to achieve victory.
The political and cultural landscape is changing faster and faster each day. While we’re making incredible, unprecedented progress toward equality for LGBT people, we must be vigilant to ensure that, as President Obama has said, “This is a country where no matter who you are, or what you look like, or how you came up, or what your last name is, or who you love—if you work hard and you take responsibility, you should be able to make it. That’s the story of America.”
Rebecca Isaacs is executive director of Equality Federation, the strategic partner and movement builder to state-based organizations winning equality for LGBT people in the communities we call home.