What Obama Gets Right About LGBTQ People in the Workplace

By Imara Jones Jun 27, 2014

As LGBTQ Pride celebrations reach a fever pitch across the country over the next few days there is real reason to celebrate. In the next couple of days President Obama is likely to sign an executive order–announced nearly two weeks ago–that would ban workplace discrimination against LGBT employees at any company that does business with the federal government.

Obama’s executive action will bring important safeguards to nearly one out of five LGBT workers. That’s because the U.S. spends nearly a half trillion dollars on goods and services in the private sector each year. Companies that do business with the United States government will have to provide workplace protections whether they work on a federal contract or not.

As the report A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits and More Taxes for LGBT Workers (PDF) put it, "Inequitable laws impose across-the-board hardships that undermine both the economic security of millions of workers and the ability of businesses to recruit, employ and retain the best the the brightest." Given that nearly two out of five  (PDF) gay and lesbian workers have experienced discrimination on the job, with the transgender community bearing the brunt of workplace hostility, Obama’s action could help change all of that.

The president’s decision to do something about LGBT workplace discrimination comes as a surprise. In fact, his decision to shield workers at companies that make everything from the nation’s jet fighters to the asphalt in our roads marks a stunning reversal after six years of solid resistance to the idea. In fact, months before the 2012 election when LGBTQ contributions and votes were vital, LGBTQ activists were called to the White House in order to receive the news that Obama had decided not to sign the very order that will be offered up in a matter of days. The New York Times described attendees after that meeting with White House Counselor Valerie Jarrett as "disappointed and vexed." But just two years later Obama stands to make history with a stroke of a pen.

When asked what emotion he felt after receiving word that the executive order would move forward Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida said elation. Almeida founded Freedom to Work three years ago to fight for LGBT workplace protections. "It was inexplicable and frustrating why [the White House] delayed this for six years, but now the president leads Congress by example and he does so from a place of moral clarity."

Obama’s intensified focus on employment non-discrimination is key for LGBTQ people of color. As I have written before, people of color are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than their white counterparts. While many who work in professional jobs at the largest corporations like Citibank and Google already enjoy the protection of sexual orientation and gender-identity safeguards, many at medium-sized and small companies do not. Given the fact that LGBTQ Americans are more 30 percent more likely to have lower-wage, hourly jobs than the population overall, this difference is key. Many fast food franchises, for example, are in fact small businesses.

But even at some large companies gaps remain. According to The Williams Institute more than seven out of the nation’s biggest corporations provide protections for LGBTQ workers but Exxon Mobil (PDF), for example, has none. Exxon Mobil is the second largest company in the world and employs tens of thousands people in the United States. Since Exxon Mobil does business with the federal government once the executive order takes effect all of its employees will be subject to the new non-discrimination rules.

The new executive order is also important for LGBTQ workers in the South where over 50 percent of African-Americans live and states with the second and third largest numbers of Latinos are located. Out of the roughly 30 states without nondiscrimination laws, nearly half are below the old Mason-Dixon line. In parts of the country where no workplace protections exist, as Lambda Legal’s Holiday Simmons told me, the order "will have more impact than in other states" with safeguards.

"Every year we get thousands and thousands of calls from people of color who believe that they’ve faced employment discrimination," said Simmons, the director of community education and advocacy for Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office. "This is a big, big issue because you can’t do much in life until you have a livelihood. Until that happens everything else is secondary."

Of course the reason that Obama is required to act unilaterally is because the Congress has chosen not to do so. Though the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed the Senate last year it’s stuck in the House of Representatives where Speaker John Boehner said that there is "no way" ENDA will see the light of day this year. ENDA would guarantee LGBTQ workers in all 50 states the protections they need to be judged on their performance rather than who they are.

What’s interesting is that the only way we’ve arrived at this moment of historic guarantees for LGBTQ workers is through the exercise of authority that Obama has been resistant to use: the inherent power of the presidency. What’s equally curious is that the president remains reticent to take the sweeping executive action he has on LGBT issues and apply them with equal force to other parts of the progressive agenda. Immigration of course is a stand-out where the president has consistently asserted that he has little room to maneuver on the scope of deportations, even as the Secretary of Homeland Security reports directly to the Executive Office of the President. Adding to this picture is the fact that the executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors is limited, applying only to private sector employees who work on government contracts.

But the path to full economic justice is full of advancements and setbacks. Without a doubt, Obama’s looming action is a clear, historic win. For that he and the entire nation should celebrate this weekend with Pride.