Fear and Discrimination: Bad for Workers, Bad for Business

Discriminatory firings and fear make a mockery of the American dream. Erecting a barrier of discrimination between workers and their ability to reach their full potential harms the economy. Permitting the obstacle of fear when employees need to be themselves hurts businesses.
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Most people would agree that at the heart of everyone's "American dream" is securing a good job. Along with that dream comes the right to work hard, provide for yourself and your family and, above all, keep that job and advance in that job based on merit.

We all share the fundamental sense that no one should have to live and work in fear of being victimized or bullied or even fired for simply being who they are. In fact, this sense of fairness is so ingrained in our value system that polls show that 80 percent of Americans believe that there are strong legal protections against workplace discrimination in place already.

The reality is quite different. There is no federal law that bars employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Every day across this country, hardworking people are being discriminated against and fired simply because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

I am a transgender American, a man who transitioned from female to male approximately 20 years ago. I was raised in a working-class family with a strong work ethic. I had my first job at the age of 5, working for my father at his evening job. He would take me and my sister to work with him, and this was how we earned our spending money. I recall very vividly cleaning the water fountains in the offices. It was during this time that I learned to take pride in my work. My father showed me how to make the water fountains clean and shiny. I then graduated to the trash cans. From that point on I have always worked a job, and since college I've always held two jobs at a time in some form or fashion. My employers have always praised my work.

Prior to my physical transition, I began working at a major financial institution. After I announced my gender transition, only six months passed before I was "constructively discharged" from my employment. While my supervisors could tolerate a somewhat masculine-appearing black woman, they were not prepared to deal with my transition to being a black man. With growing despair I watched my professional connections, support and goodwill evaporate -- along with my prospects of remaining employed. I was harassed until I was forced to leave.

Before fully accepting that new reality, however, I tried everything possible to save the career I had worked so many years to build. Once I lost my job, I thought that there must be laws that protect individuals when they are discriminated against. I was wrong.

So imagine this: You work with an LGBT person who is a hard worker, a great colleague and a wonderful parent. You arrive at work one day to find that this colleague has been fired by a homophobic or transphobic supervisor simply for who they are or whom they love.

Surprised? Saddened? Maybe even shocked?

Then imagine something else: You come into work on Monday, and you can't talk to your colleague about what you did over the weekend, about your husband, wife or partner, your anniversary, or your family, all because you are afraid of being out at work because you might get fired.

Nervous? Preoccupied? Maybe even sick with worry?

Discriminatory firings and fear make a mockery of the American dream. Erecting a barrier of discrimination between workers and their ability to fairly reach their full potential harms the U.S. economy. Permitting the obstacle of fear when employees need to be themselves hurts American businesses.

The good news is that we can do something to change this picture, to bring the law into line with our values of fairness as Americans.

The U.S. Senate will soon get the opportunity to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA will help stop the firings and help reduce the fears that many LGBT employees have.

If you believe that the American dream should be for everyone, then please call your senators. Urge them to do the right thing.

Next weekend, as you take a break from work and enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, please take a minute to consider that this is pretty much impossible to do without a job and job security -- and that LGBT workers should be afforded the same access to the American dream as everyone else.

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