Editor’s Note: Jeff Graham is the executive director of Georgia Equality, an organization that works to advance fairness, safety and opportunity for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in Georgia. On December 14, he participates in CNN Dialogues, a panel discussion in Atlanta that will address the question, "Has wider exposure of LGBT issues made the American public more accepting of gay rights?"
By Jeff Graham, Special to CNN
In a few short weeks, I will celebrate 23 years of being blessed with a loving and supportive partner. To us, the issue of marriage equality is of great personal and political importance. However, as a couple who calls Georgia home, the promise of applying for a civil marriage license remains a distant dream. In 1996, the Georgia Legislature voted overwhelmingly to outlaw same-sex marriage. In 2004, 76% of our neighbors, family and coworkers voted to change the state constitution to forbid the passage of any future laws allowing for gay and lesbian couples to enter into marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Over the past few years, we have donated money to the fight for marriage equality in other states. We shed tears of sorrow as we watched 28 other states, including California, pass constitutional amendments similar to Georgia’s. We shed tears of joy at the victories allowing gay and lesbian families to seek various levels of legal recognition in 18 states and the District of Columbia, including the recent win to secure gay marriage in New York. Next year, we will do the same as we wait to see how voters in Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina will decide the fate of tens of thousands of loving couples when they vote on amendments of their own.
However, as the director of a gay and transgender rights organization, every day I am faced with a more immediate challenge – ensuring that all people are protected against discrimination in the workplace. Although the right to work is a cherished American value, every few weeks, I receive a call from someone who has been fired from their job or denied a promotion because the are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They call seeking advice or a referral to file a complaint. I’m the one who has to break the news to them that they have few options. Their employer may have acted unethically but they acted legally.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not recognized as protected classes under federal law. Since 1982, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation that guarantees workplace fairness for employees who are known or perceived to be gay. Sixteen of those states and the District of Columbia have extended those protections to transgender individuals. In fact, many people already assume such protections exist. A recent poll from the Center for American Progress shows about three-quarters of those surveyed support the passage of laws that would offer this basic protection.
Organizations throughout the country are currently working to ensure that their own states and municipalities pass legislation and enact policies that will assure that all employees will be treated fairly. This is the issue that many of us working to advance lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights see as our top priority.
Here in Georgia, polling done for my organization shows 76% of voters surveyed feel that legislation should be passed to protect state employees from such discrimination. When the legislature convenes next month, they will debate a bill to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s nondiscrimination policy. The bill has already gathered the support of 70 representatives with support from Democrats, Republicans and Independents. With enough momentum, this is a victory for equality that can be won.
Our challenge as advocates is to create and sustain that momentum. Marriage equality is the issue that dominates the headlines and generates discussion at political debates and news programs. Celebrities have taken up the cause and slogans like “NO H8” have been embraced by popular culture. According to an analysis of census data by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles there are at more than 900,000 same-sex couples in America today. They deserve the right to marry.
Yet there is little attention paid to the fact that the vast majority of the estimated 9 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans could lose their jobs tomorrow if someone doesn’t like who they love or who they are. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act has been introduced in Congress, however there is little political will to see its passage.
While it is important that we continue to change hearts and minds by pursuing marriage equality, let us not lose sight of the necessity of passing legislation that protects our right to fairness in the workplace.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Graham.
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