Thursday, June 26, 2008
Laws Cannot Restrain the Heart, But They Can Restrain the Heartless
Hordes of people - including four of PFLAG’s finest - lined up outside of the Rayburn House Office Building earlier this morning, eagerly awaiting the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension’s (HELP) first ever congressional hearing on transgender issues entitled An Examination of Discrimination against Transgender Americans in the Workplace. Despite a late start, Chairman Andrews commenced the hearing introducing the leaders of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Equality Caucus - Representatives Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Barney Frank (D-MA). Both representatives acknowledged the historical importance of this hearing and articulated the significant importance of crafting “real remedies” to ameliorating the inordinate rates of employment discrimination Transgender Americans experience.
After opening remarks, Chairman Rob Andrews (D-NJ) introduced all of the hearing witnesses. Two witnesses, Diane Schroer, a retired colonel of the US Army and Sabrina Marcus Taraboletti, a former space shuttle engineer spoke about their struggles of securing employment after they told their respective employers about their decisions to transition. The negative reactions they experienced not only cost them their jobs, but also their family and friends, leaving them with limited options in moving their careers forward. Their valued testimony sheds light on the blatant, shocking, and unembarrassed employment discrimination they experienced. Had a federal law like the inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) existed, these women would have had the legal protections they so desperately need.
Members of the Subcommittee also had the opportunity to hear from Bill Hendrix, Chair of the Gays, Lesbians, and Allies at DOW (GLAD). Hendrix shared his company’s journey in adopting a global nondiscrimination policy that protects transgender employees from discrimination and also provides guidelines on how to support an employee who chooses to transition on the job. Hendrix stated that the company’s proactive stance on diversity and inclusion helps attract some of the most talented and qualified candidates from around the world. He stated that DOW’s trans inclusive policies have also contributed to the company’s higher retention rates and made it easier to recruit new talent.
One witness arguing against expanding federal employment nondiscrimination laws on the basis of religious freedom was Glen Lavy, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. He argued that it would be wrong for the federal government to force employers with “religious beliefs to hire a [qualified] transgender person”, stating it would be “like forcing Orthodox Jewish people to eat pork.” Chairman Andrews made it a point to question Lavy’s analogy, asking for his opinion on whether he thought it would be moral if a pacifist employer blatantly denied a job to a qualified combat Marine Corps reservist or for a white supremacist to out rightly deny a job to a qualified person of color. Both alarming and humorous, Levy stumbled for words and conceded that the federal law protects these job seekers from such discrimination, but failed to make the connection Andrews was clearly illustrating. The Chairman used Lavy’s answer as a means to advocate for a federal law to protect similar transgender job seekers and employees.
Overwhelmingly, the majority of members present at the Hearing supported Chairman Andrews’ approach on working toward securing a nondiscrimination employment policy that is inclusive of transgender people. Representative Phil Hare (D-IL) stated that it is time for the Congress to legislate “what is right, what is just, and what is fair” to ensure that all people, including transgender people, have the right to work and support themselves without fear of harassment and violence. While Chairman Andrews acknowledged that social progress in Washington is “glacial,” he seemed optimistic that the Congress will engage in vigorous debate over expanding employment protections to transgender people in the upcoming months, and that today’s Hearing was instrumental in better informing this process.
If you would like to review the testimony submitted to the record or watch the archived version of this historic congressional hearing, please visit the Committee on Education and Labor’s website.
-J. Rhodes Perry