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Harry Reid says his niece is gay, raising hopes for ENDA

LGBT advocates got some encouragement from Sen.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. March 14, 2013. (Photo by Cliff Owen/AP)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. March 14, 2013.

LGBT advocates got some encouragement from Sen. Harry Reid on Wednesday about the prospects of a bill designed to protect gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination. Reid didn’t exactly guarantee that he would put the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to a Senate vote this year, but he did disclose in an interview with the Huffington Post that his niece is gay--a potential sign, advocates hope, that the majority leader will take a more aggressive approach to passing ENDA as soon as possible.

"My niece is a lesbian," said Reid to reporters on Wednesday. "She's a school teacher. Her employment shouldn't be affected with that. We should have a law that says that, not just the good graces of wherever you work."

Reid co-sponsored a version of ENDA in 1996, but the measure failed to pass by one vote. The Senate hasn’t voted on the bill since, even in the years the Democrats have had control. A watered-down version of the law without transgender protections passed the House in 2007--the year Reid became majority leader--but it died in the upper chamber.

Now Reid is saying there’s “a chance” he’ll bring up ENDA for a vote this year. While advocates are encouraged by the news of Reid’s niece, they are far from throwing a victory party.

“There is still a need for all of us in the LGBT community to push Sen. Reid to keep his promise of holding an ENDA vote as soon as possible,” said Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, to “He promised that vote was coming ‘soon’ in 2010, but did not keep that promise, so we have to keep mobilizing and pushing until ENDA gets to the Senate floor for a vote that is long overdue.”

Almeida doesn’t believe that Reid has intentionally avoided putting the bill to a vote because of personal objections. Rather, he feels the majority leader is a “very careful” vote counter, who is unwilling to put legislation on the floor without sufficient confidence it can pass.

“I believe there are 60 votes this year for ENDA,” said Almeida. “But it’s a matter of [Reid] confirming those votes and getting enough assurance to put the bill on the floor...We were pleasantly surprised Sen. Reid retweeted our message to hold a vote in 2013.”

Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, is also hoping Reid’s niece will give him the “immediacy” he needs to get ENDA passed in 2013. “When you know someone who is LGBT, then a legislative issue becomes a personal issue,” said Cronk to Thursday. “When you have someone looking over your shoulder, that’s when bills get passed.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced ENDA in both the Senate and House of Representatives last month. Modeled after Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the bill seeks to create a national ban on workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans in the same way that federal law already prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, race, gender, national origin, or disability.

Currently, it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay in 29 states and for being transgender in 34 states.

Though the bill contains a broad religious exemption, opponents argue that ENDA will infringe on religious liberty.

In his interview Wednesday, Harry Reid wondered aloud why the bill hasn’t had enough support to pass. “It's hard to comprehend that we haven't done a better job," he said.

It’s been four decades since the first proposal to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation was introduced in Congress, and 17 years since the Senate last voted on the measure. Now that a number of states have legalized marriage equality, and several lawmakers have publicly reversed their opposition--including Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who also has a gay family member--advocates are hopeful that this will finally be the year ENDA gets passed--or least, put to a vote.

“The last time this came up for a Senate vote, ‘The Macarena’ was the number one single,” said Cronk. “It’s been too long.”