Late last week, the U.S. Department of Labor took an important step forward for its transgender employees by adding gender identity to the department's internal equal employment opportunity (EEO) policies. The Labor Department will now explicitly prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity, as well as pregnancy, under existing bans on sex discrimination.
In announcing the updated EEO policy, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said, "I am expressing my personal commitment to ensure that the U.S. Department of Labor is a model workplace, free from unlawful discrimination and harassment, which fosters a work environment that fully utilizes the capabilities of every employee."
In addition to the recently updated Labor Department EEO policies, beginning in January 2010, the federal government started to list gender identity in the EEO policy for all federal jobs on www.usajobs.gov. By explicitly including gender identity as a protected class under EEO policies, the federal government made an important commitment to protecting transgender federal employees and took a significant step toward ending employment discrimination of LGBT people in the federal workforce.
Also of note, the three federal agencies and departments that have the greatest responsibility for protecting federal employees from discrimination on the job — the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division — have all adopted internal EEO/non-discrimination policies that offer similar protections to their transgender employees. Included in this growing list as well are the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Postal Service.
Increasingly, federal agencies and departments, combined with an ever-growing list of private companies, as well as various state and local governments, are all arriving at the same conclusion — that a person's gender identity or sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on the ability to be a great employee. However, while this is a promising trend in the country, it remains legal to fire or refuse to hire someone for being lesbian, gay or bisexual in 29 states, while transgender workers can legally be denied or refused jobs in 37 states.
The need for Congress to pass the long-overdue Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA - H.R. 1397 and S. 811) could not be stronger. It is simply jaw-dropping that in our country in the year 2011 there is a group of people who, when they go to work, are forced to deny their families and loved ones and hide who they are for fear of losing their livelihood. ENDA will allow all American workers who stand side-by-side at the workplace and contribute with equal measure in their jobs to also stand on the same equal footing under the law by prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in most American workplaces.
While the struggle for passage of ENDA continues in Congress, steps like those by Secretary Solis and the Labor Department help add important protections for current and future transgender employees, and send the unmistakable message that anti-LGBT employment discrimination has absolutely no place in the federal government.