Every day, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people experience discrimination in the workplace. Typically, it is rooted in homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, or mere cultural incompetency of what reality is like for LGBT people—and the consequences are real. Workplace discrimination makes it difficult for Black LGBT workers to secure a job, and financially provide for themselves and their families. The negative treatment that LGBT people encounter, oftentimes solely based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, is further exacerbated for Black LGBT people.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would change this by allowing every worker to be judged on their merits, talents, and qualifications, not on who they are or whom they love. This change could be the first step to ensuring that LGBT workers, and especially Black LGBT workers, are economically secure.
Currently, there are no binding workplace protections for the nearly nine million LGBT workers throughout the United States. If passed, ENDA would become the first federal law that provides explicit workplace protections for LGBT individuals by prohibiting most employers from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. This federal protection is critical given that it is still perfectly legal to fire someone simply because they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual in 29 states in this country, and in 33 states simply because they are transgender or gender-nonconforming.
Here’s why enacting ENDA is critical to the economic stability of all LGBT people, especially Black LGBT people.
Black LGBT people are economically insecure and are at a high risk of poverty. Contrary to the myth of gay affluence and grossly fabricated mainstream depictions of a predominately-white LGBT community, LGBT people are racially and financially diverse. In a 2012 Gallup poll, for example, LGBT people were more likely to identify as people of color compared to non-LGBT people. Black Americans were the most likely to identify as LGBT, and research shows that Black LGBT people, in particular, are at a much higher risk of poverty than other groups. The lack of job security for LGBT people, given they can be fired at a moment’s notice just for being LGBT, further exacerbates this economic insecurity.
Large numbers of LGBT people live in states with no workplace protections, and many of those states have high populations of Black LGBT people. Black same-sex couples are more likely to live in areas with higher concentrations of Black people, rather than metropolitan areas known for large LGBT populations. For example, southern states comprise some of the largest numbers of Black same-sex couples raising children, but places like Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have no statewide LGBT workplace protections, thus leaving LGBT families economically vulnerable.
When compounded with race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, Black LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to a lack of workplace protections. When intersected, racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia can create disparate job bias against Black LGBT people. Frequently, Black LGBT workers are among some of the most marginalized people due to lack of workplace policies and employers who discriminate. Due to race-based discrimination, LGBT animus, lack of workplace protections, and minimal help to get out of poverty, LGBT workers can find themselves in a precarious situation. These are only a few impediments that prevent Black LGBT people from finding and keeping a steady job – one that allows them to financially provide for themselves and their family.
For the first time since 1996, the U.S. Senate cleared an important hurdle toward passing ENDA, voting in favor of cloture — a procedural move intended to overcome any attempted filibuster. This will be the first time in 17 years Members of Congress will debate, on the Senate floor, whether LGBT workers should receive explicit workplace protections. Although ENDA is expected to pass the Senate (and they are scheduled to vote on it today at 2:45), the House of Representatives will be another hurdle, especially given recent comments made by Rep. John Boehner (R-OH).
Passing ENDA would be a historic moment for LGBT workers across the country, but especially for Black LGBT workers. ENDA is not simply about history though, it is about livelihood and ensuring Black LGBT people are able to financially care for themselves and their families. Certainly ENDA would not eliminate every systematic inequality facing Black LGBT workers, but it would go a long way toward dismantling legal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Black LGBT workers only want a fair chance to exhibit their qualifications upon entering the workforce, and passing ENDA could be that start.
Preston Mitchum is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Kent State University, completed his law degree at North Carolina Central University, and received his LL.M. from American University. His writing focuses on the intersection of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and poverty. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonMitchum.