OPINION: The US Senate must listen to business on LGBT+ equality

by Deena Fidas | Out & Equal Workplace Advocates
Wednesday, 3 March 2021 09:44 GMT

Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives pose for a photograph holding LBGT+ and Transgender Pride flags on the steps of the U.S. Capitol ahead of a vote on the Equality Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 25, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenne

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Equality Act, passed by the House last week, would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to give LGBT+ people full, equal protections under federal law

Deena Fidas is chief program and partnerships officer of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, which works for LGBT+ workplace equality.

For decades, the plain truth of American life is that some of us have always been more equal than others. The House vote last week on the Equality Act, creating a more perfect and equal union, has bolder meaning for LGBT+ people. If passed by the Senate and, signed into law, the bill will – at long last –  amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act and afford full, equal protections under federal law for LGBT+ people.

What does this mean? In our daily lives, federal law will ban discrimination against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federal funding, access to credit and serving on a jury. It’s that basic.

Our children and our children’s children should never know a country that refuses to extend civil rights to everyone. Seven out of 10 Americans agree – even half of the voters who cast their votes for President Donald Trump in November.

This support did not happen overnight or even over a few years. It is a sea change that has been decades in the making, especially among America’s business leaders and visionaries. For the first time in history, an omnibus civil rights bill enjoys the public support of more than 300 major businesses, from American Airlines to property company Zillow.

Why do corporate leaders speak out? Simple. They understand the business case for equality. Namely, that diverse workplaces that encourage everyone to contribute their full potential, unencumbered by fears of discrimination are proven leaders in innovation, retention and performance. Businesses are more successful and more competitive when everyone comes to work with equal respect, support and opportunity for advancement, no matter whom they love or how they identify.

This bottom-line analysis helped to drive more and more Fortune 500 companies to implement sexual orientation and gender identity non-discrimination protections, while offering equitable benefits for LGBT+ workers and their families, and a host of other practices aimed at fostering more inclusive workplaces.

This was not always the case. In mid-century America, companies expected – and just as often resisted – government mandates to be more inclusive, more accepting and less discriminating, especially when hiring and promoting women, people of color and those living with disability. Compulsion and compliance for employers meant checklists, enforcement penalties and oversight to keep within the law.

The LGBT+ community was forever the stark exception to “compliance” arguments for change. Even by the early 2000s, there was not a single federal law that explicitly protected LGBT+ Americans from discrimination in the workplace or in the community.

The Defense of Marriage Act prevented same-sex couples from lawful marriages and until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, LGBT+ adults could not even engage in sexual intimacy without threat of arrest. Under these hostile conditions, equal rights remained a distant goal.

Fortunately, things changed over the past two decades. With changes in attitudes, as well as landmark court decisions, businesses increasingly moved from resisting legal mandates to implementing a strategy of inclusion based on competitive growth. Business leaders came to learn that there is never human talent to waste nor a single customer to be left behind.

Over time, as non-discrimination protections on the job and equitable benefits became the table stakes for major businesses, the conspicuous absence of full legal equality for the LGBT+ community became a paramount business challenge as much as a civil rights goal.

Today’s business leaders are speaking out because know they have a responsibility to their employees, the communities where they operate and their customers. They know what’s at stake.

The House of Representatives has done the right thing. Now, it’s time for the Senate to follow suit, draw on the insights of American business leaders, and pass the historic Equality Act. The economy, not to mention the lives of millions of LGBT+ Americans and our families, will be better for it.

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