WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary heard from law experts, community organizers and business leaders at a hearing on the Equality Act (H.R. 5) Tuesday. If passed, the bill would extend the protections of Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
"We see you, we support you and we believe in you," said Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., committee chairman, at the top of the hearing, addressing LGBTQ Americans. "All forms of discrimination are tied together, and we must address them together," he said.
The bill, which died in committee in 2015 and 2017 and was reintroduced earlier this month, would allow LGBTQ individuals easier use of federally-funded programs and protect them from discrimination in housing, public accommodations and the workplace.
To illustrate the precarity of trans and non-binary workers in workplaces in certain states, Founder and Executive Director of Black Transmen, Inc. Carter Brown testified on his experience with workplace discrimination in Texas after a co-worker outed him as a transgender man.
"I was suddenly isolated in a field where communication and teamwork was essential to doing my job. To my co-workers, being transgender eclipsed everything," Brown said. "I began to dread coming in to work and often spent lunch breaks alone crying in my car. I was fired shortly after, and despite my previous achievements and excellent work performance, my termination from work was lawful." Brown said he had to cash out his 401(k), go on Medicaid and defer loan payments after he was fired.
H.R. 5 would benefit LGBTQ workers facing discrimination, but passing the legislation could also bring great relief and support to U.S. employers, according to Tia Silas, vice president and global chief diversity and inclusion officer at IBM. ADP, Google, Deloitte, Marriott and others have voiced support for the bill, according to committee members.
With the bill’s passing, employers wouldn’t need to parse through a patchwork of state laws protecting LGBTQ workers and would be able to cultivate and retain diverse workforces, Silas said in her testimony in support of the bill.
"Our core business objective is to hire the most talented individuals, regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or other personal characteristics," Silas said. "We value a workforce that reflects the diversity of society so that we can create solutions that are both relevant and revolutionary. We don’t want our employees and their families to be limited in where they can safely and comfortably live and work." Research shows that diversity helps businesses thrive, but if workers doesn’t feel safe and welcome at work, retention will suffer.
Brown agreed: "I do not feel safe in the workplace," he said, asserting that a workers’ LGBTQ status "has nothing to do with the ability to do their jobs" but "everything to do with their survival."
Title VII already prevents employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, but to address the current hole in its protected classes, 20 states and D.C. have passed legislation to address gender identity and sexual orientation protection at work.
"Yes, some states have laws explicitly protecting people from these kinds of discrimination, but it’s fewer than half," said Rep. Theodore Deutch, D-F.L., "So we can either accept that fewer than half of Americans benefit from equal treatment, or we can move forward with the Equality Act."
Opponents argued that to codify these protections at the federal level would put cis women at risk for assault or harassment from transgender women — a similar argument to that by proponents of state-level "Bathroom Bills." Rep. Tom McClintock, R-C.A., also suggested that protecting trans women would threaten women-owned businesses’ competitive edge.
Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, took a different view. She told the committee that women’s rights and safety are top-of-mind for her organization, especially in the era of #MeToo: "In that context, I want to say that transgender students and individuals are at a higher risk of sexual violence than cis-gender women, and we need to protect all of us," she said.
With 240 co-sponsors, including three Republicans, the bill could enjoy success in the House. It may face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, however. In the meantime, management-side attorneys have recommended that employers refrain from discriminating against applicants and employees based on LGBTQ status. Both the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several courts have held that Title VII already includes such protections, and the U.S. Supreme Court may soon weigh in as well.