A Civil Rights Watershed

Saturday, November 3, 2007

THE UNITED STATES took a step closer this week to fulfilling its promise of equal opportunity for all when the House passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or fail to promote an employee because of the person's real or perceived sexual orientation. The 235 to 184 vote capped an effort started in 1974 by two New York members of Congress: Bella Abzug (D) and Ed Koch (D).

The bill's passage in the House is a victory not only for gay men, lesbians and bisexual people, but also for all Americans who believe that people who work hard and play by the rules should not lose their jobs or be denied one simply because of who they are. Yet the work is not done. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) will soon introduce the bill in the Senate, where it failed by just one vote in 1996. The bill must pass this time. Already, 20 states, 276 municipalities (including the District) and 433 of the Fortune 500 companies ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The measure has its critics. Opponents in Congress offered specious arguments for voting no. This will force religious institutions to hire gay people, they thunder. No. Religious institutions and the military are exempt. This will lead to increased litigation, they warn. Probably not. According to a 2002 report from the General Accounting Office, there has been no notable increase in lawsuits in states that put in place nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation. This is "special rights," they cry. The right to work and provide for one's family is not special but one of the most basic of civil rights.

Many gay rights activists opposed the bill because the final version didn't include protection for transgender people, including those who have changed their sex, who are living their lives as the other sex or who do not conform to traditional gender roles. The omission was a painful but wise choice that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) made to increase the bill's chance of passage. Transgender people must channel the activism this action sparked into a long-term effort to educate the public and lawmakers about the discrimination they face.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company