Sep 082009
 
Authors: Alexandra Sieh

Joe Peterson has never had much trouble competing for jobs.

The junior political science and communication studies major has worked various positions canvassing for unions and political candidates to push progressive issues.

“My experiences have always been fine,” said Peterson, who is openly gay and has worked for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, among others. “. I’ve always taken unique jobs where (employers) are very liberally based, doing things like political work for progressive candidates.”

But even in a state with a slew of non-discrimination rules that govern how companies treat their employees, some of Peterson’s friends in similar situations have had trouble with intolerance in the workplace.

After a 35-year-long battle against bigotry, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community may see legislation that could quell some of the problems they face passed on a federal level this year.

The bill, which is called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and is currently being considered in the House of Representatives, is expected “to prohibit employee discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to the measure.

Andy Stoll, the executive director of the Lambda Center, a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning and ally resources center for Northern Colorado, explained how, if put into effect, ENDA has the potential to ease the struggles GLBT community members face on a regular basis when trying to find and keep employment.

“It is going to eliminate that fear that a lot of GLBT people have around losing one of the most basic things that we need (a job), especially during a time when jobs are so hard to find, and jobs are so hard to keep,” Stoll said.

And while the national ENDA will help those in states that haven’t adopted a form of non-discrimination legislation, the act has already proven itself in states that have enacted some form of the bill.

In Colorado, there is an ENDA in place that protects GLBT people from bias from both sexual orientation and gender identity, an act very similar to the one that is currently working its way through Congress.

Peterson has personally seen the importance of this act in the workplace when his boyfriend, Keith, as an employee at a grocery store in Denver, experienced weeks of derogatory statements regarding gay lifestyle over the summer from his coworkers.

“He started to have issues with some of the more homophobic employees at the store,” Peterson said.

However, because of Colorado’s non-discrimination rules, he was able to report the situation and those employees in question received disciplinary actions.

“It made his work environment a much more pleasant experience,” Peterson said. “Those issues were addressed to those in question, and everything was handled quickly.”

For Peterson and other members of the GLBT community, the protections offered by ENDA are essential in making the workplace safer and more comfortable for its GLBT employees.

“A job is such a personal thing, and to have your livelihood threatened because of your personal identity is difficult,” Peterson said.

Stoll said, “Having that protection is going to eliminate a lot of that fear that GLBT people live with every day.”

This comfort in the workplace will also benefit employers, said Foula Dimopoulos, the director of the GLBT Resource Center at CSU.

“When people are valued for who they are and what they bring to the table, they’re more productive, and they want to be there,” she said.

According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Web site, many companies have already enacted autonomous non-discrimination policies, recognizing this improvement in employee satisfaction attributed to equal treatment.

“. I definitely believe that it has been more cultural acceptance that has allowed ENDA to pass (for states in the past),” Peterson said.

To explain this change in public opinion, Peterson refers to a cycle of feedback he says he sees occurring in everyday life.

“It’s all feedback,” he said. “As things progress in the public’s acceptance of the GLBT community, things get better. The types of jobs available and that are accepting of us grows everyday.”

With some students looking past the end of their college career to an already struggling workforce, ENDA will help GLBT students make that transition a little easier, Dimopoulos said.

“(ENDA) has the potential to create a more level playing field for them as they go out into the workforce,” she said. “They won’t have to hide what’s on their resume, . the student organizations they’ve been a part of, . even working in this office.”

She also emphasized that ENDA affects all people.

“It’s not just a bill for GLBT people, but for all citizens in the U.S. in terms of how people are discriminated against on the basis of gender identity and expression and how that gets perceived as sexuality,” she said.

Since its initial conception in 1974 as the “The Gay Rights Bill,” which would have added sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ENDA has grown to be inclusive for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but also for the transgender community, which was previously excluded from the bill.

This addition of gender identity, defined as “the gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s designated sex at birth,” is new to this year’s ENDA attempt, and it has the GLBT community’s attention.

According to Jason Marsden, the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation — the organization created after the brutal killing of openly-gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard following his death at Poudre Valley Hospital in 1998 –, this inclusion of gender identity has been controversial in the past.

“It’s been divisive in past years in the GLBT community, with the transgender community feeling left out of the treatment of ENDA,” Marsden said.

This year, however, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. has been joined by Diego Sanchez, the first openly transgender man to be appointed to a top government office, as Frank’s executive assistant.

Since his appointment, Sanchez has served in “building bridges” to other people in Congress, “having conversations with other representatives . and changing the climate there,” Stoll said.

“I think one of the biggest things is the fact that it is primarily a democratic Congress,” Stoll said. “This time, we have support from all branches of the government right now.”

Marsden agreed, saying one of the biggest changes to this year’s attempt is the understanding and acceptance that is spreading throughout government regarding the GLBT community.

“I think what’s happening is one: there is a more progressive Congress; and two: people are becoming educated that there are in fact no workplace protections,” Marsden said. “People are realizing there are no protections in place, and they’re starting to feel that they should exist.”

Peterson said he also saw this growing understanding taking place.

“I think with these types of issues — hate crimes protections and non-discrimination acts — there’s a huge block of support,” Peterson said. “It’s time (for these things to pass) and people realize it.”

This visible support both in government and in GLBT organizations across the country has allowed many GLBT people to feel optimistic for the first time in years, Stoll said.

“I think that there are a lot of people who are really excited, and they should be,” Dimopoulos said. Her own excitement, however, was underscored with an understanding that things can also always change.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “Certainly one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that hope tempered with patience brings to fruition the vision of an equitable world, in hopes to sustain you when things are not good, when people are not treated well.”

For Dimopoulos, this initiative has far-reaching effects, especially for students here on campus.

“This change has been a long time in coming, and it came on the backs and the shoulders of the heroes and ‘sheroes’ we’ve lost along the way,” she said.

Assistant Design Editor Alexandra Sieh can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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