In tonight’s State of the Union address, President Obama talked extensively about jobs and the economy. He discussed immigration reform. He touted the success of the Affordable Care Act. He devoted several minutes to discussing current foreign policy situations. He touched on education, tax reforms, and pressed for an increase in the federal minimum wage. Sadly, he left a number of critical issues completely untouched- chief among them the concerns of the LGBT community and the languishing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly known as ENDA.
Oh sure, he gave the minimum of lip service to our existence in his brief mentions of “marriage equality” and later his hat-tip to “sexual orientation” in his statement about equality in regards to the upcoming Olympic games in Sochi. Meanwhile, in 29 states it remains perfectly legal to fire (or refuse to hire) someone because they’re gay, lesbian or transgender. 33 states offer no protections to transgender workers. According to the most recent report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 90% of transgender workers have experienced some form of harassment. Nearly half (47%) had been fired, had not been hired, or had missed out on a promotion because they are trans, including 26% who had been actually lost their jobs. Because of the persistent discrimination and transphobia in the US, losing our jobs has even more catastrophic effect than it does for the straight, cis population, leading to four times the rate of extreme poverty, and four times the rate of homeless (1 in 5 trans people will be homeless at some point in our lives). Most heartbreaking of all, 41% of trans people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives, more than 25 times the risk of the general population.
These bleak facts stem for a systemic, entrenched anti-trans bias within the entirety of the US economic system, from education to the workforce. While we have lots of work to do to disassemble this bias, comprehensive workplace protections for transgender individuals (and indeed, all LGBT people) would provide a large measure of stability and would represent a huge leap forward in trans rights. Congress has an excellent opportunity to enact such protections, though S. 815, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) of 2013. The proposal passed the Senate in November 64-32, including three yes votes from Republicans. While Congress has previously considered similar bills, this marks the first time such a bill containing protections for trans people has gained final passage in a chamber of Congress. All indications are that- if allowed to come to a vote on the House floor- the bill would pass, and President Obama has indicated that he would sign it. So what’s keeping this critical legislation from passing? The unwillingness of Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote, as he views it as “unnecessary” (I’d be willing to bed the 1 in 4 trans people who’ve been fired would handily disagree). Unfortunately, the rules of the House make it nearly impossible to circumvent the Speaker’s block on the vote.
So, back to Obama’s State of the Union Address. President Obama prodded the members of Congress towards action on a number of issues, including extending unemployment benefits, increasing the federal minimum wage, closing tax loopholes, and funding preschool education. Unfortunately, he entirely failed to prod Congress on the final passage of ENDA. Job protections for LGBT people are not a particularly controversial topic for the public at large. A poll by the Center for American Progress back in 2011 demonstrated that nearly 3 of 4 Americans support workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, including a majority of Republicans. More troubling is that 90% believe these protections already exist. So, we have a policy that the majority of Americans- and a majority of Congress- supports (indeed that most think already exists) that won’t become law because of one single legislator’s objections. The State of the Union seemed like the perfect opportunity to press for action on such an item. Mr Obama could have very publicly called on Boehner to allow such a vote (either directly, or indirectly). The President could have promised to sign an executive order to require protections for LGBT people in all federal contractors as an additional pressure, much as he did with the federal contractors and minimum wage. President Obama’s press office included such items in his pre-address “fact sheet”, but that’s a far cry from a expression of public support in a major address. When the President took the podium, all we heard was a deafening silence on one of the most critical issues facing us today.
Some might argue that it’s a fairly “minor issue”, affecting a small number of Americans, and not worthy of the President’s limited speech time. However, as a comparison, roughly 1.6 million people recently lost their unemployment benefits, about 0.5% of the population by my estimate. LGBT identified folks make up about 4% of the US population by current estimates, more than 8 times as many who would benefit from the far-more controversial unemployment extension. However, that issue was found worthy of mentioning at length in his speech. Returning to the minimum-wage issue for a moment, about the same number (1.6 million) of individuals currently make minimum wage (per Bureau of Labor Statistics) as recently lost unemployment checks. And yet, raising the federal minimum wage was a key issue in Obama’s address. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe these are both very important and worthwhile issues and they certainly warranted being discussed in the President’s speech. But in sheer numbers, the passage of ENDA impacts a greater number of people, and it’s nonsensical to argue that we’re comparatively insignificant minority.
I could take the President to task for many oversights in his address, from drug policy to criminal justice to reproductive rights to proper funding for the NIH. However, his failure to press for action for such basic protections that could do so much to improve the lives of trans (and other LGBT) individuals is absolutely inexcusable, particular given that that ENDA enjoys wide support with Americans and has functionally zero fiscal implications. If this version of ENDA dies in the House without reaching the President’s desk, it will represent an enormous missed opportunity to provide trans and queer people with something most have never had- a chance to live their lives without fear of losing their livelihoods and incomes simply for being who they are. The simple fact is, Mr Obama had the opportunity to take a groundbreaking step in going to bat for the LGBT population in his address (and, in doing so, keep a key campaign promise). However, as has become so common a theme in his administration, President Obama left queer and transgender Americans out in the cold.