Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
After 40 years of efforts, there is still no federal law protecting queer and trans workers from job discrimination. This failure is keeping those communities in poverty.
Marriage has certainly has been the most professionally marketed and best-funded battle for LGBTQ rights, and the one heterosexual allies have been most willing to get on board with—possibly because the legal and social benefits of marriage are understandable and relatable. But within the queer-rights movement, the issue has been somewhat of an attention hog.
Celebrating the victory this weekend was bittersweet for many queer and transgender people. "Aren't you glad you can get married today then fired for it on Monday?" a friend wrote me. She was referring to the the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which has been pushed repeatedly to the back of the line while the more popular and "hearts and minds"-winning issue of marriage came to the fore.
Last year, President Obama granted discrimination protections to federal workers through an executive order. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 states and the District also bar discrimination based on gender identity. But there is no federal law specifically protecting queer and transgender workers.
It's hard to get people—especially straight allies, the bloc of funders and voters who were slowly won over and helped pass same-sex marriage in many states over the past several years—to jump on board with something as dry as employment discrimination. There are no happy, loving couples to hold up as examples of why queers are "just like everyone else" and deserve job protections. Supporting ENDA requires recognizing the heavy reality that queers and transgender people are not just like everyone else in the eyes of the law: They are affected the most by lack of employment protections—and the underemployment and poverty that follows.
According to fact sheets from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, 90 percent of trans workers report being harassed on the job, and up to 17 percent report being fired for bing trans. The Center for American Progress reports that wage disparities for trans workers are severe. Trans families are more likely to live in poverty. Fifteen percent of trans workers report making less than $10,000 per year, a poverty rate almost four times that of the general population. It’s even worse for trans people of color.
ENDA has been introduced in various iterations to Congress since 1994 (a very early form was floated in 1974 by Representative Bella Abzug, but died in committee). Its most recent introduction and failure was in 2013, when several major national LGBTQ organizations pulled their support of a version of the bill, fearing that it was too vulnerable to religious exemptions being debated by the Supreme Court as part of the "Hobby Lobby" case tied to the Affordable Care Act.
Early ENDA legislation didn’t actually include protections for trans workers. In 2007, those measures were finally debated—and deliberately excluded. That year, according to the Washington Blade, Barney Frank and many others who moved to drop trans protections from the bill argued that doing so could secure protections for many, rather than none. (Neither version of the bill got through the Senate.) The calculated omission created a political fissure between the mainstream LGBTQ and trans communities that has never healed.
If marriage was a leveler of sorts, getting middle America to care about the employment rights of a community that has been left in the shadows will be a stretch. Trans issues are often minimized even by the LGBTQ community—if not outright shouted down and mocked, as in the case of Jennicet Gutiérrez, a founding member of FAMILIA: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, who disrupted an LGBTQ event at the White House last week to draw attention to the cause of trans people of color and immigrants. (She was ejected and roundly termed “a heckler,” even by the president himself.)
Fighting for employment protections is not as fun as throwing rice to stand on the side of equal love. It's a more somber discussion to bring to the big party tent that marriage equality built, and which many queers fear will get packed up entirely now. There are many independent projects seeking to make trans lives and needs more visible, but will big-money organizations boost that signal? Can trans communities trust the Gay Respectability Machine?
Over the weekend, many jubilant, rainbow-filtered profile pictures flew through by Facebook feed. Many of those people who were celebrating are straight. If ENDA is to be passed—and if the wide range of Americans who supported marriage equality want to prove themselves as allies—those supporters need to turn their attention, loyalty, and support to this next step.
Marriage (hopefully) doesn't end when the honeymoon is over. Will the same people and organizations that stood up with the queer community last Friday still stand with it now?