In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama was asked by the Houston LGBT Political Caucus if he would support a formal written policy banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. His response, according to a copy leaked more than a year ago to Metro Weekly, was one word: “Yes.”
Fast forward nearly a term and a half, and the man once dubbed "the first gay president" is quickly running out of time to follow through.
As the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) languishes in Congress, advocates are growing increasingly agitated with the president’s as yet unfulfilled pledge to extend workplace protections to LGBT Americans. The first version of ENDA was originally introduced in 1974, but has never made through Congress.
Rather than relying wholly on lawmakers to pass ENDA, advocates argue that the president should expand an existing executive order that already prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin—but not sexual orientation or identity. The order covers employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that exceed $10,000, or that would be expected to accumulate more than $10,000 in any 12-month period. Thus, this executive order would apply to companies like ExxonMobil, whose shareholders recently voted for the 14th year in a row to reject adding LGBT protections to the company’s equal employment opportunity policy.
“Companies like ExxonMobil and others, which receive millions of dollars every year in federal contracts paid for with taxpayer money, will only institute non-discrimination policies when forced to by the federal government,” said Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, in an email to msnbc. “Now is the time for President Obama to say, once and for all, that America is not a country that discriminates based on who you are or who you love.”
Following the ExxonMobil vote, calls for President Obama to act grew stronger. But the White House only withdrew further, telling Metro Weekly that there were no updates “regarding a hypothetical executive order.”
LGBT advocates were furious.
“The fact that [a spokesman] is calling the executive order ‘hypothetical’ is crazy,” said Cronk in a separate email to msnbc. “Last year, they gathered a bunch of of LGBT organizations to talk about the executive order, and subsequently announced that they wouldn’t be signing it. Now it’s ‘hypothetical?’”
Cronk’s organization has since escalated its tactics, hoping the aggressive push will shed more light on the issue. At a fundraiser last week, GetEQUAL member Ellen Sturtz heckled Michelle Obama in what she described in an op-ed as a “spontaneous reaction” to the first lady’s remarks. And on Thursday, eight other activists affiliated with GetEQUAL were arrested outside House Speaker John Boehner’s office following a staged sit-in. The speaker said in April that he hadn’t “thought much about” ENDA, and that there are “ample laws already in place” to deal with workplace discrimination.
The arrests came shortly before President Obama reiterated his support for ENDA at a White House pride celebration. But advocates remain puzzled by the president’s reluctance to expand the existing non-discrimination executive order. Currently, federal contractors legally bound to comply with the order employ approximately 22% of all U.S. civilian workers, according the Center for American Progress. That means that nearly a quarter of the American workforce would be entitled to LGBT workplace protections, should Obama decide to sign.
“We’re looking to move from talk to action,” said Cronk on msnbc Friday. “We’re looking for the president to pick up his pen, make sure that he’s not just talking, but moving us toward action, sign an executive order that would cover about 22% of the American workforce, get us about a quarter of the way there, and then show leadership for Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”