It's 'way past time' for gay rights law

Opinion: Out at work in Mississippi
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Story highlights

  • John Sutter: Congress should pass Employment Non-Discrimination Act
  • ENDA would protect LGBT people from being fired because of who they are
  • A majority of Americans in every state support this concept, surveys show
  • Sutter says it's a matter of fairness and justice, not politics

"People should be able to breathe -- to not have to worry about being fired because of their sexual orientation or identity."

That seems like a simple enough request, huh Congress?

It's a personal one, too, since it comes from Andre Cooley, a 28-year-old who says he was fired in 2010 because his supervisors at a corrections facility in Mississippi found out he's gay.

It's time to ban that discrimination, he told me Monday.

"It's way, way, way past time."

A large majority of Americans agree with him. In fact, a majority of Americans in every state, even conservative Mississippi, support legislation that would ban workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. And that makes perfect sense for exactly one reason: To oppose this legislation, which is called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, is to support the idea that LGBT people can be fired for being themselves.

John D. Sutter

It's a clear matter of right and wrong, fair and unfair.

This isn't a Republican or Democrat thing. It's a human thing.

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Sure, conservatives will trot out all manner of dated and discriminatory arguments to say the legislation isn't needed or will cause unwanted problems. They'll say, "This is less about tolerance and equality and more about oppressing the freedoms of others." When they do so, they'll sound to most Americans -- to the 70% or more of us who support this legislation -- like they're parodying themselves in a "Daily Show" segment. Whose freedoms, exactly, are being oppressed if a person can't be fired for being gay? And on what planet is freedom increased if someone can be fired, legally, just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity?

We have laws to protect people of different races, religions and disabilities from being fired because of who they are. But no federal legislation for LGBT people. A minority of states have passed laws of their own, but why should it be legal for a lesbian in Utah to receive no workplace protection when, across a state border, she would have it in Colorado?

This is an issue the American people have decided on. They know it's good for business, as Apple's CEO argued in The Wall Street Journal. "We've found that when people feel valued for who they are, they have the comfort and confidence to do the best work of their lives," Tim Cook wrote.

And they know it undermines who we are as Americans, as President Barack Obama said this week. "It's offensive. It's wrong. And it needs to stop," the president wrote in an op-ed in The Huffington Post, "because in the United States of America, who you are and who you love should never be a fireable offense."

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Seems pretty clear-cut, right?

Well, Congress is still having some trouble.

Sixty-one senators, including seven Republicans, voted Monday night to bring the bill to the Senate floor for debate. There, it has a good chance of passing.

But none of that will matter, really, if the nondiscrimination bill can't get past the House of Representatives. Also on Monday, House Speaker John Boehner reaffirmed his opposition to ENDA. "The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs," Boehner's spokesman said, according to The Huffington Post.

Nevermind that that argument was undermined by a June Government Accountability Office report that found that not to be true in states that already have nondiscrimination laws. What's scary is that Boehner's opposition to this civil rights legislation could keep it from a vote in the House.

Let's hope logic and compassion change his mind.

I know that sounds naive, but stranger things have happened.

Cooley, for example, the corrections officer in Mississippi, sued and got his job back. He was able to do so because he works for a public employer. Had he worked for a private company, he might not have been so lucky, attorneys and experts who specialize in LGBT employment law told me in March when I first reported on Cooley and his saga.

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He's back at the job he loves. And he's able to be open with his co-workers about who he is now. Maybe that sounds like a small thing.

But think of what it's like to live in fear that someone at work will find out your secret and then you'll be out of a job.

This is what it's like for gay people in so many states

It was the case for Cooley.

Now that Cooley is openly gay at work, and has legal protection because of his court case, he's able to be himself.

"Everything at work is great," he told me.

It should be that way for others, too.

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