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A Fitting Tribute on the 40th Anniversary of Stonewall

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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June 26, 2009

This coming weekend will mark a historic anniversary for LGBT Americans. It will have been 40 years since an early summer evening in New York City’s Greenwich Village saw the birth of the modern gay rights movement. June 28, 1969 was the day when LGBT people fought back against government and police persecution in the form of raids and arrests at bars where people could socialize and meet others like themselves. The Stonewall Inn was the location where LGBT people refused to go quietly, humiliated, into the night.

In standing up for their rights, that small group of people laid the groundwork, at a time when being gay was still considered a mental disorder no less, for what would become a full-scale movement for equality for LGBT Americans. When you think about it, the progress that we have achieved in such a short amount of time is simply amazing, even with occasional setbacks and loses that are an inevitable aspect of any effort to expand civil rights.

Today, after years of little more than faint hope, Congress stands on the cusp of passing critical and long overdue employment protections for LGBT people. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), one of just a handful of openly gay and lesbian Members of Congress, has just introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 (H.R. 3017). This legislation, commonly referred to as ENDA, would prohibit discrimination in employment based on an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It already has a bipartisan group of 117 co-sponsors, including the Chairmen of the powerful House Judiciary and Education and Labor Committees.

As a sign of the progress that the LGBT community has achieved over the past 40 years, nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies have implemented non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Additionally, 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Twelve states include those protections for people who are transgender.

While these facts are certainly encouraging, there is an obvious gap in our civil rights laws that leave many LGBT people vulnerable to employment discrimination based purely on who they are. In 2007, the ACLU released a report entitled Working in the Shadows: Ending Employment Discrimination for LGBT Americans, which highlighted the stories of those who have been discriminated against in their jobs because they happen to be gay or transgender. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a serious problem or that Congress does not need to act should read the stories highlighted in this report.

This April, the ACLU won an important legal victory for a transgender veteran who was denied a job with the Library of Congress after she informed them of her intention to transition from male to female. And just yesterday, there was a story in The New York Timesabout how lawyers in the Obama administration are finalizing first-of-their-kind guidelines that will bar workplace discrimination against transgender federal employees.

Passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will help to ensure that LGBT Americans will no longer need to live in fear at their jobs that they may be “outted” and lose their only means of survival or won’t even be given a chance because they are transgender. These are such basic protections that most people take them for granted. ACLU members and activists should contact their Members of Congress and urge them to finally pass this legislation.

As those of us who happen to be part of the LGBT community remember the historic 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I can think of no better way for Congress to show its commitment to equality and fairness for all Americans than by passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009.

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