Marriage equality has been the undisputed focus of the LGBT equality movement for the past decade. The amount of money and media attention it has drawn is unmatched by any other cause in the history of the LGBT rights movement. While efforts to achieve marriage equality have yielded impressive results (see e.g., the crippling of DOMA and the overruling of many state bans on gay marriage), LGBT people remain far from equal in the eyes of the law. Sure, LGBT people may soon be able to get married in most states in the country, but our employers can still refuse to hire or fire us solely because we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In other words, it is completely legal under federal law for Hobby Lobby, Chik-fil-A, or any other employer to have an explicit policy stating that they do not employ LGBT people. While some states have laws prohibiting this sort of employment discrimination, it remains legal in 29 states to fire someone because they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and in 35 states because they are transgender.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a federal bill that would prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of someone’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, has repeatedly failed to pass in Congress. Last year, the bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 64-32, but House speaker, John Boehner, has refused to put it to a vote in the House, citing his personal opposition to the bill.
Why has marriage equality, admittedly a noble and important cause, been the primary focus of the LGBT rights movement when people in our community are not protected from discrimination in the workplace? While there are tangible economic benefits of marriage, the effects of being denied employment are exponentially more severe. So why has employment discrimination not been first on our “gay agenda”?
Maybe it’s because the leaders of our movement have traditionally been gay, white, middle class men who are not worried about poverty or job security. Or perhaps marriage equality is the cause that draws the most attention and contributions from our straight allies. But if we, as an LGBT community, seriously evaluated which of our needs is the most critical and most widespread, it probably would not be the right to marry.
Not all LGBT people want to get married. However, most of them do want to be employed. It’s time for our LGBT leaders to bring this shocking gap in civil rights legislation to national attention and put unyielding pressure on Boehner and the House to introduce and pass ENDA.