Millennials struggle to comprehend why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act isn’t law yet, but they shouldn’t accept the version with religious exemptions being considered today.
Ask any college senior today what they are most focused on and they will reply with the same phrase: a job. Today’s young people grew up during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They’ve seen their own government shut down over funding disputes, the student loan debt bubble top $1 trillion, and income inequality soar through the roof. According to reports, 41.3% of those aged 25-34 will spend at least a year earning less than 150 percent of the poverty line.
In short, young people – notably those without college degrees – understand that the fight for financial stability is an uphill battle in today’s America. Perhaps for this reason, it is downright inconceivable to even some of the most conservative Millennials that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people don’t have the same level of employment protection as other historically disadvantaged social groups.
This week, for the first time, it seems as though one of the ‘secondary’ issues of the LGBTQ movement is finally getting its time to shine. The Senate passed its version of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) Thursday, voting 64 to 32 in favor of barring discrimination by “employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, or joint labor-management committees … on the basis of an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Some straight Americans may mistakenly believe that LGBTQ advocates would only have agitated for marriage equality after having secured workplace nondiscrimination for queer people. They would argue that, while marriage carries a certain religious weight, the idea of protecting LGBTQ people from wrongful termination seems like common sense. It would surprise many, then, to know that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have no workplace protections in 29 states and trans* people remain vulnerable in 34 states.
Progressives are now attempting to capitalize on the Senate’s passage of ENDA to pressure House members to vote similarly when their version of the bill comes to the floor in the near future. Since 90 percent of Americans believe that LGBTQ people are already protected from discrimination, one would hope that liberals in the House would have an easy time sealing the deal on ENDA before the end of the month.
Say what you will about the movement for marriage equality in the United States, it’s at least been successful in its marketing. It seems likely that the average American could tell you that LGBTQ people are struggling for one thing: marriage. While the lion’s share of the financial, human, and media resources of the LGBTQ movement have gone towards the push for same-sex marriage at the state and federal level, it’s not accurate to say that LGBTQ Americans only care about marriage to the detriment of other pressing issues. In fact, a vocal minority of queer people have pushed the mainstream ‘gay’ establishment for years to shift their priorities toward other issues, such as workforce and housing protections, violence against queer communities, and the provision of inclusive healthcare to LGBTQ people.
It’s unfortunate that some of these organizations now find themselves up against a wall. Yes, ENDA has been passed by the Senate for the first time and seems destined for the same in the House. Yet many queer are concerned by religious exemptions negotiated into both the House and Senate drafts of the bill. These strategic loopholes open the floodgates for religious organizations to continue to ostracize, harass, or discriminate against the queer movement family.
One of these queer organizations, GetEqual, announced its public opposition to the current drafts of ENDA. They were alarmed by the ability of these religious exemptions to undermine their goal of collective liberation for all queer people. Additionally, they were troubled by the idea that national LGBTQ religious exemptions might then be deployed against advocates working to expand women’s access to comprehensive reproductive health services. GetEqual’s Co-Director, Heather Cronk, went as far as to say that, “Conservatives believe that ‘religious liberty’ should trump all other democratic constructs – including equal protection – and we must call out that they’re wrapping bigotry up in shiny packages of religious liberty and hoping no one notices.” It’s clear to me, and the young people I work alongside, that equity with conditions (as articulated in the Senate’s version of ENDA) isn’t really equity at all.
To some extent, this conversation around ENDA and ‘compromise’ has evolved into a sort of motif of the LGBTQ movement. For years, grassroots organizers have found liberal elected representatives willing to sponsor nondiscrimination ordinances to protect ‘sexual orientation’ as a suspect class. But for many officials, the term ‘gender identity’ or perhaps ‘gender identity and expression’ has carried an entirely different political, or even radical, charge. Again and again, mainstream gay organizations caved to the demands of politicians to limit the scope of their work to ‘LGB’ populations – leaving the trans* community out to dry. Perhaps due to this storied past, the pressure on progressives to concede to the demands of the Christian right’s religious exemption seems ever so familiar and frightening.
In light of the failure of previous concessions to substantially decrease rates of violence against LGBTQ people and bring all queer people under the umbrella of legal protections, I’m hesitant to endorse a pre-conditioned draft of ENDA. Instead of accepting the religious exception as a fait accompli, we ought to pressure our elected officials to protect queer people from harassment, discrimination, and persecution everywhere from anyone. We must push them to see past the façade of religious fundamentalism to the continued oppression of LGBTQ people at home and abroad.
Consequently, young people must say with one voice: we demand access to economic stability for all people – including LGBTQ communities – without condition. We cannot allow our elected officials to carve out spaces where queer people are protected and other spaces where it’s legal to discriminate.
Erik Lampmann is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Equal Justice. He studies political theory and French at the University of Richmond.