Will Gay Marriage Change The American Workplace?
One of the most striking results of Election 2012 was that gay marriage initiatives were passed by popular vote in three states (Maine, Maryland and Washington).
And voters in a fourth state, Minnesota, rejected a constitutional ban on same sex marriage. At the same time, the first openly gay senator was elected to the U.S. Senate, Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin.
But many hurdles remain, beyond the 41 states in which same-sex marriage still isn't allowed. As far as gay workers are concerned, the issue can be even more fundamental than government recognition of relationships -- it's legal in 29 states to fire a worker for being gay.
Significantly, not all movement on gay-related issues is toward the expansion of new rights, as several localities throughout the country are moving to roll back progress that gays have made. So it's in fact a matter of two steps forward, one back. "These results speak to a nationwide urgency to do more," Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Commission, said after the election.
Several local votes have recently sent the gay rights movement backward.
In two Kansas cities, Salina and Hutchinson, voters nixed anti-discrimination ordinances that were already on the books. Both ordinances would have outlawed discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. Both votes passed by comfortable majorities. In the case of Salina, the issue cannot be brought up again before the city commission for another decade. Kansas state law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in public employment, but there are no statewide anti-discrimination laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender workers.
Palm Beach County's equal employment provisions back in January 2011. Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel insisted that the move was a way to protect home rule, because the town indeed does "follow state and federal law." But Assistant City Manager Mike Woika compared LGBT rights to pet lovers' rights. "What's to keep other groups from wanting to be protected?" he said, according to South Florida Gay News. "How about me? I'm a pet lover.... Someone who has dogs should not be discriminated against either."
The decision to opt out, which was initially presented to residents as a "housekeeping item," only came to light when the city lost out on a $250,000 contract to handle hazardous waste, as the county will not do business with any party that doesn't adhere to to its anti-discrimination policy. To secure the contract, the city ultimately signed an agreement saying it will not discriminate against LGBT employees. But according to South Florida Gay News, it's unclear whether the final agreement results in any actual legal precedent protecting gay workers in Boca Raton.
Toward Equality In The Workplace
Near the top of the national agenda for gay rights advocates: To convince President Barack Obama to sign an executive order banning employment discrimination against LGBT workers employed by the federal government and government contractors. He passed on doing so earlier this year ahead of the November vote.
Another top priority is the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would be a safeguard for gays in the 29 states where they can still be fired for their identity. (ENDA would also make it illegal to discriminate against transgender Americans, who can still be fired for their identity in 34 states.) ENDA has been proposed every year in Congress since 1974, with the exception of 1994, to no avail.
For activists, equality at the altar, which Obama came out in favor of in May, is simply not enough. "Obama should demonstrate conviction and make it clear routinely that LGBT people deserve full equality in every aspect of American life," Herndon Graddick, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD), told the Huffington Post
The National Mood
But whatever does happen to laws affecting gay rights in the workplace, gay marriage continues to be the true bellwether for the gay rights revolution. And since the last national election cycle, support for gay marriage throughout the nation has grown nine percentage points, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center. In 2008, 39 percent of America supported making gay marriage legal. The figure now stands at 48 percent.
Support for gay marriage, which is on the verge of becoming a majority viewpoint in the country, is at odds with the legal framework in many states in the nation. Over the past 15 years, 30 states have prohibited gay marriage by popular vote. Views vary widely by region; 62 percent support gay marriage in New England, while the figure stands at 35 percent in the "central South," which includes the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
Love, Marriage And The Labor Market
The legalization of gay marriage also has proven to have a positive impact on the labor market, beyond even short-term economic gains for states that now have more weddings on their hands. (New York City's economy saw a boost of $260 million in the year after after the state legalized gay marriage back in 2011.)
In reacting to same-sex marriage in Maryland, Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, the state's largest employer, told The Baltimore Sun that in his previous job as the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, he saw that the school was able to attract talent from the state of Wisconsin when that state voted down the extension of health care benefits for same-sex domestic partners in 2005.
And so for him, the Maryland law provides "a strong economic benefit for the state in having a progressive, humane and just legal environment so we can attract people, talent and creativity to Maryland and keep them within the state."
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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