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Does corporate America really care about you?

Secret forced arbitration contract clauses undercut equality laws

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Cover of the 2021 Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index report. (Graphic via HRC)

The LGBTQ community first flexed its muscle with corporate America thousands of feet in the air.

In April 1993, an American Airlines flight crew messaged ground control to request a “complete change” of blankets and pillows onboard the aircraft because of a “gay rights activists group onboard” headed to the March on Washington. The message’s meaning was not subtle: the crew ignorantly thought the amenities had been sullied by openly gay people.

The reaction from LGBTQ advocates was fast, furious – and effective. In many ways, it forever changed the way corporate America saw — and marketed to — the LGBTQ community. The incident led American Airlines to form the first-ever corporate marketing team to support LGBTQ causes. That led to changes internally that made the airline a standard bearer for what constituted an LGBTQ-friendly business.

Business has been mostly supportive since then. Corporations responded swiftly when North Carolina adopted its “bathroom bill” targeting the transgender community. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – hardly an icon of progressive values – urged Congress to pass the Uniting American Families Act, a bill to allow lesbian and gay American citizens to sponsor their same-gender partners for residency inside the U.S., long before federal marriage recognition made that possible.

The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, ranking businesses on their LGBTQ-friendly policies, and visionary marketing gurus like Bob Witeck, who pioneered many of today’s corporate equality practices, also made corporate America more supportive. (Full disclosure: my very first professional marketing job was with Bob Witeck, whose firm advised the American Airlines Rainbow TeAAm.)

However, one troubling trend has actually increased in recent years: the use of forced arbitration clauses to keep employees out of court. 

Arbitration is used by corporations to avoid true accountability. Its most common usage, until recently, was in consumer agreements. Buried deep within the contracts consumers sign for cell phones, rental cars and other services has long been the “fine print” saying you agree to bring any dispute in arbitration and not in court. 

That practice was bad enough, forcing millions into secretive arbitration proceedings where evidence cannot be shared or is rarely made public. Corporations usually prevail.

Now there’s another alarming new trend: in the wake of the pandemic, more corporations are forcing their employees to sign away their right to their day in court as a condition of accepting a job. The Washington Post recently reported that, “U.S. employers relied heavily on arbitration in the first months of the pandemic, pushing a record number of complaints involving discrimination, harassment, wage theft and other grievances through a closed-door system largely weighted against consumers and workers.”

For the LGBTQ community, that means employees must promise not to sue their employer in court if they encounter discrimination, harassment – or even physical assault – on the job. Instead, they must take their claim to arbitration which, the Post explained, “keeps employment disputes out of the public eye and fails to hold corporations accountable.”

So, if you’re a lesbian denied a promotion because of your sexual orientation or a transgender employee who is denied access to the restroom consistent with your gender, you have no way of taking your boss to court and little hope that, even if you pursue your claim in arbitration, your experience will ever come to light or help others facing the same situation inside the same company. Even in a world where the Equality Act becomes law, arbitration agreements would undermine that federal protection.

More and more employers are insisting employees sign away that right as a condition of being hired. “Most nonunion U.S. companies require arbitration, leaving 60 million workers without legal recourse, according to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute,” the Post noted. And the numbers have only grown over the past three years.

It is time for the LGBTQ community to see forced arbitration – and especially forced arbitration in employment contracts – for what it is: an increasingly pervasive tactic that helps enable employment discrimination, workplace harassment and other unfair practices. Our community must insist that businesses do better – or face losing our support and our money. We’ve done that before and we can do it again.

As a first step, the Human Rights Campaign should immediately begin scoring corporations’ arbitration policies as part of its Corporate Equality Index screening. Any company that forces LGBTQ employees into arbitration should be docked points on the Index. HRC should also endorse and score Members of Congress on their support for The FAIR Act, a bill pending in Congress that would significantly rollback the scourge of forced arbitration. 

Secondly, groups like Out and Equal must vigorously educate both employees and employers about the dangers of forced arbitration — how it impacts LGBTQ workers and why it must never be a condition of accepting a job. 

And finally, we must demand that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce drop their support of this discriminatory practice. The Chamber – far from its days of advocating for same-gender binational couples – is now the country’s top defender of arbitration that locks LGBTQ employees out of court.

It’s been nearly two decades since our community responded to that awful incident in the sky and insisted that, in order to be “something special in the air,” American Airlines had to commit to something meaningful here on the ground. Now we must find that same resolve – and use some of those same tactics – to help LGBTQ employees. Corporations that force employees to sign away their legal rights in order to earn a living do not deserve our business, our talent or the label of LGBTQ ally.

Steve Ralls, Director of External Affairs for Public Justice, previously served as Director of Communications for Immigration Equality and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

For more information about Public Justice and forced arbitration, visit PublicJustice.net.  

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Trump family had a tough week — may it only be the beginning

Let’s hope he’s headed to prison instead of back to White House

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Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump and Donald Trump in happier times in 2016 at the ribbon-cutting of the Washington, D.C. Trump Hotel, now the Waldorf Astoria. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the first time I actually think Donald Trump and his family may get what they deserve. They have been screwing the country for so long it seemed no one could get to them. Donald Trump is like a mafia don, with his family, and others like Rudy Giuliani, being his soldiers. Like many mafia don’s we have seen, while not going down for the deaths he caused, he will likely go down for his financial shenanigans.

As reported in the Washington Post, “The legal dangers facing former president Donald Trump rose this week, after the New York attorney general filed a fraud lawsuit that could effectively shutter the Trump Organization and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit allowed federal investigators to continue their probe into classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago.” In addition, “other setbacks for Trump come as at least a half-dozen additional legal efforts proceed against him and his allies. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed dozens of his former advisers, and many others, as part of a sprawling investigation into efforts to obstruct the transfer of power after the 2020 election. Separately, a Georgia grand jury has been looking at allegations that he tried to obstruct that state’s electoral count by pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn the election.” 

While the New York State investigation is civil, New York AG Letitia James has referred her findings to the Manhattan DA, to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, as well as to the IRS, for possible criminal proceedings. Many of us are keeping our fingers crossed one of these many investigations will finally see Donald Trump where he belongs; not in the White House, but as a more permanent resident in other federal housing, a jail cell. 

While it is important to hold Trump and his acolytes accountable for all the legal issues, we must also hold him responsible for the cultural wars he inspired and promoted. We have always known there are racists, homophobes, transphobes, sexists and misogynists in our midst. However, through hard work and many years of progress, we had seemingly reached a time in this country when people who harbored those hideous feelings couldn’t stand openly in the public square and voice them, no less act on them, without repercussions. The four years of Trump’s presidency changed that. What he did through his words and actions gave people tacit permission to spout these thoughts and even to act on them. He did this because people understood he was all of those things himself, and in most instances never really tried to hide it. He openly courted and defended white nationalists and neo-Nazis. He bragged about mistreating women. Because of Trump many members of minority groups including the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Asians and women have actually lost their lives to violence. If not losing their lives, many lost the chance to live their lives openly, freely and in safety. With all his misguided policies, lies and obfuscations, it is the cultural wars he unleashed that will take the longest, maybe decades, to counter.

We once had two relatively sane political parties, both advocating differing policies but both standing up for democracy. They seemed to understand our government was founded on the need for compromise to move forward their particular ideas. I may have disagreed with most Republican policies, and their national platforms, but I knew that if they won the Congress and the presidency, I could still fight another day to have Democrats win the next time and change the direction of the country more to my liking. But either way our democracy was going to stand. Today, if Republicans take over, I am not so sure of that.

Yet for some reason I still have confidence in most of the American people. I believe they will fight for our democracy by voting this November to give the Democrats continued control of Congress. By doing so they will let us continue to work to shore up our democracy and to make progress on issues from climate change, to immigration, updating our tax code, and ensuring no person in our country goes without a roof over their head, food in their stomach, and adequate healthcare. I believe we can defeat both Trump and Trumpism if we can convince enough people the road to a better life for them, their children, and grandchildren, is to reject Trump’s evil and defend our democracy.  

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Kenyan McDuffie for D.C. Council-at-Large

A voice of reason and progress in city government

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D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Kenyan McDuffie is a voice of reason, and a voice for progress, on the D.C. Council. He has been a voice for those without one, and for minority communities across the District. 

Kenyan is a fourth-generation Washingtonian raised in a working-class family of six. He attended Shaed Elementary in Edgewood, St. Anthony Grade School in Brookland, and graduated from Woodrow Wilson Jackson-Reed high school, having played varsity basketball. He has been a union member working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. His college career began at the University of the District of Columbia, which he continues to strongly support. He transferred and graduated summa cum laude from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Community Development and then joined the staff of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. He left there to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, where he was an editor of the law school’s Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. 

After law school he clerked for an associate judge on the 7th Judicial Circuit of Maryland and then became an Assistant State’s Attorney in Prince George’s County. He then joined the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where, as a trial attorney, he enforced key federal civil rights laws in cases throughout the country. His caseload at the DOJ included defending the civil rights of the mentally ill, nursing home residents, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations.

At that point in his career, Kenyan added community activist to his resume becoming president of his local civic association and taking a job as a policy adviser with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice. In that position he worked with Council members to shape policy and legislation for the District of Columbia.

In 2012, with this wealth of experience, he was elected to the D.C. Council. At that time Lateefah Williams, president of the Stein Democratic Club, wrote in the Blade, “Kenyan McDuffie is the type of leader that Ward 5 needs. He is intelligent, he has key experience in diverse matters from public safety to public policy, and he is a staunch supporter of the LGBT community. These are some of the reasons the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, D.C.’s largest LGBT political organization, endorsed Kenyan McDuffie for Ward 5 Council.  … and why I personally support Kenyan McDuffie.” Her confidence in Kenyan was well placed. For 10 years he has worked to build coalitions and create solutions, tackling D.C.’s most significant challenges. In his first year on the Council, he was elected to serve as Chairman Pro Tempore (Vice Chair), a position he continues to hold. 

Kenyan is what those of us looking at legislators call a work-horse, not a show-horse. He has put in the work to bring consensus and pass legislation, which he did with sweeping updates to D.C.’s criminal justice laws when he became chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2017. With that committee he oversaw the implementation of D.C.’s police body-worn camera program, including ensuring the public has fair access to the video footage from encounters with officers. 

Kenyan has a view of public safety that includes both a strong MPD, with appropriate community oversight, and recognition of the need to fully fund community organizations working to reduce crime. Kenyan, like the mayor, believes we need to do both of these things, not one or the other. He recently said, “One of my proudest moments on the Council is passing the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. The law takes a holistic approach to preventing crime in the first instance and floods communities disproportionately impacted by violence with resources – including violence interrupters and behavioral and mental health services – in addition to more innovative, data-driven policing.”

For the past five years, Kenyan has chaired the Council’s Business and Economic Development Committee. His focus has been on helping grow the local economy with a stronger focus on supporting small and minority-owned businesses. He fought to put millions of dollars in the Commercial Acquisition Fund to allow socially disadvantaged business owners to apply for grants to purchase commercial properties here in D.C. Kenyan spearheaded an emergency relief package of $100 million to help the hospitality, entertainment, and retail industries – some of D.C.’s largest employers of immigrants and minority workers – weather the pandemic and keep District employees on the payroll.

For these reasons, and many more, we cannot afford to lose Kenyan’s voice on the Council. I urge everyone to cast their vote for Kenyan McDuffie for Council-at-large. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Bisexual activists cautiously excited after White House meeting

Sept. 20 gathering took place during Bisexual Visibility Week

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From left to right: Ellyn Ruthstrom, Tania Israel, Nicole Holmes, Mimi Hoang, Ezra Young, Lauren Beach, Belle Hagget Silverman, Diana Adams, Heron Greenesmith, and Khafre Abif. Kneeling: Robyn Ochs, Fiona Dawson and Blair Imani outside the White House on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Heron Greenesmith)

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, just in time for Bisexual Visibility Week, a diverse group of 15 bisexual and pansexual activists met with officials from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS. 

The 15 advocates comprised a wide cross-section of the bisexual community, including nonbinary, transgender, female, young, older, Black, Asian and Muslim advocates, people with disabilities and parents. We came from many walks of life: Academia, education, research, health care, advocacy, law, media and community activism. This isn’t unusual: Bisexual people comprise more than half of all LGBT people, totally approximately 12.5 million bisexual adults in the U.S. Strikingly, 15 percent of all GenZ adults — nearly 1 in 6 — identify as bisexual. People of color are more likely to identify as bisexual, as are cisegender women and transgender people in general. 

It has been a painful six years since the Executive Branch last met with bisexual activists (you do the math.) Those meetings, like this one, were the product of tireless advocacy from a population with zero paid organizational staff and less than one percent of all philanthropic dollars earmarked for the LGBT community. It was these stats and others that we shared at HHS on Sept. 20. 

Bisexual and pansexual people face specific disparities in mental and physical health, intimate partner violence and monkeypox prevention, treatment and care. Did you know, for example, that nearly half of bisexual women report having been raped? And did you know that federal reporting on monkeypox doesn’t disaggregate between gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men, despite evidence that bisexual men are uniquely vulnerable to MPX and other infectious diseases. 

Khafre Abif is a Black bisexual educator, father and person living with HIV. At the meeting with agency officials, Abif shared the story of how staff at his HIV-care clinic initially denied him the monkeypox vaccine, despite Abif being bisexual and thus in a population of special focus for the vaccine. 

“This meeting has been a long time coming for the bi+ community,” said Abif. “I’m looking forward to a dialogue with federal officials about solving some of the health issues we face.”

In order to begin remedying these disparities and more, we presented the administration with a set of benchmarks, including the creation of a Federal Interagency Bisexual Liaison and a Federal Interagency Bisexual Working Group. Other benchmarks included training for HHS staff on bisexual disparities and remedies thereof, funding streams for bisexual-specific funding and interventions, and the disaggregation of data on specific health disparities. 

Robyn Ochs is a pillar of bisexual and pansexual community organizing. At HHS, Ochs shared more about her specific expertise. “Research has made clear our health disparities and invisibility. It’s time for federal interventions to catch up with what we already know through research and lived experience.”

Frustrated by years of inaction by the federal government to release bisexual-specific data, target the bisexual and pansexual community with tailored interventions, or recognize the importance of bi+ health in general, we are cautiously excited by this opportunity to share critical data and remedies. 

Heron Greenesmith is the Senior Research Analyst for LGBTQI+ Justice at Political Research Associates, and the co-founder of BiLaw and the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. Find Greenesmith on Twitter @herong.

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