Job discrimination against gays remains widespread and legal, says HRC, NGLTF and ACLU

WASHINGTON -- When David Horowitz, an attorney from Phoenix, told the Mesa, Ariz., city prosecutor, a prospective employer, that he is gay, the prosecutor said, "Well, we may have a problem with that," and the job offer evaporated.

Doug Retterer, an assembly line worker at a Whirlpool plant in Marion, Ohio, endured more than a decade of severe anti-gay job discrimination, including being called a "fag" and a "queer" to his face and having his supervisors speculate about his sex life in front of him and other workers. Retterer began to have panic attacks and bouts of uncontrollable weeping, eventually becoming so depressed that he has been certified totally disabled by doctors and the Social Security Administration.

Sue Kirchofer of Seattle was fired from her job after she used her vacation to attend the Gay Games as a soccer player. At a staff meeting after Kirchofer was terminated, the company owner told employees "if she can afford to go to the Gay Games, she can afford to find another job."

These three were among the witnesses and spectators at a standing-room-only hearing today on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill to outlaw job bias based on sexual orientation. The hearing was called by Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., a lead sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

"Today, it is still perfectly legal under federal law to fire a person simply because he or she is gay, lesbian or bisexual," said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian and gay political organization, and the driving force behind ENDA. "This kind of discrimination happens in every region of the country. It is un-American. It is un-businesslike. And it is wrong. But it remains sanctioned by federal law, or rather, by the absence of any law prohibiting it."

"The message of ENDA is clear and straightforward," said NGLTF executive director, Kerry Lobel. "Discrimination is wrong. We look forward to the day when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people no longer have to fear the loss of their jobs on the basis of their sexual orientation. When that day comes, our society will have taken another step forward in assuring justice and equality for all of its citizens."

In testimony submitted to the Labor Committee, Christopher E. Anders, a Legislative Counsel with the ACLU's Washington National Office, urged the Senate to adopt the landmark legislation.

"ENDA will help ensure that the ability to get and keep a job will depend only on ability and willingness to work," Anders said. "It affirms the basic principle that people ought to be employed based on merit."

"In most circumstances in America today, employment is essential to any kind of a decent life, and can be essential to survival," Anders wrote. "To deprive anyone of employment is to deprive them of sustenance."

Raymond W. Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of Bell Atlantic, testified in favor of the bill, saying, "No one should have to fear loss of career opportunities or employment because of his or her race, religion, heritage or sexual orientation."

"No company can afford to waste the talents and contributions of valuable employees as we compete in a global marketplace," he added. "It is good business, and it is good citizenship."

Bell Atlantic has more than 140,000 employees in 25 states, from Maine to Arizona and from Florida to Hawaii.

A small businessman, Tom Grote, chief operating officer of Donatos Pizza, based in Columbus, Ohio, also spoke in support of the bill. "We believe people should be judged by their performance, nothing more, nothing less," he testified. "Even though we are a small business, we do not believe that ENDA will hurt our business. We already operate under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws and regulations that govern fair and equal treatment in the workplace. We do not fear an explosion in litigation with ENDA."

No witness testified against the bill. Noting this, Jeffords said he was surprised, given the amount of controversy the bill has generated in the past. "My staff scoured the country for witnesses with differing opinions, to no avail," he said. "Even those who had expressed a desire to testify [against it] changed their minds. I know that we have made a number of improvements to address the criticism of the 104th Congress; I guess I just didn't realize how thoroughly successful we were."

The hearing was halted early by a procedural maneuver that Democrats have been using to try to force a vote on campaign finance reform. While the action was not aimed at the Labor and Human Resources hearing in specific, it prevented the senators from hearing testimony from three of the seven scheduled witnesses.

Horowitz, who graduated near the top of his law school class at the University of Arizona, had been working as an assistant attorney general in the office of Republican Attorney General Grant Woods, he told the committee. In early 1994, he received a call from the Mesa city prosecutor, who indicated he was prepared to offer Horowitz a job. The two set up an interview and reached the stage of discussing the terms and conditions of the job.

"Finally, he said, `So, do you want to come work for me?'" Horowitz testified. "I responded, `Well, yes, you sound like someone I would really like to work for, and I want you to know I'm openly gay.' His face fell and the tenor of the conversation completely changed. ... He said, `Well, we may have a problem with that.'"

Only 11 states have passed laws against this kind of job discrimination, according to the Human Rights Campaign. They are: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine. (Maine's law is on hold, pending the outcome of a ballot challenge being mounted by a right-wing religious political faction.)

Birch cited national polls showing that more and more Americans believe anti-gay job discrimination is wrong. "In May 1996, a Newsweek poll found that 84 percent of Americans support equal rights in employment for gay and lesbian people," she said. "A month later, in June 1996, an Associated Press poll found 85 percent of those surveyed favor equal rights on the job for gay people."

Support for this type of fairness crosses party lines. According to a bipartisan poll conducted for HRC in April 1997, 75 percent of Republicans believe that gay people should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities -- up from 64 percent of Republicans who felt that way during the 1994 elections. And support for ENDA itself is at record levels -- bridging partisan and regional differences. According to the April poll, 68 percent of voters support passage of ENDA -- including 59 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of independents and 79 percent of Democrats.

Corporate America has recognized this fact and has adopted non-discrimination policies that cover sexual orientation, Birch said. She cited an HRC report that found slightly more than half of the Fortune 500 companies have such policies.

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