When you pull up Google and type in “fired for being,” the first item that comes up is “gay.”
The numbers are sobering when it comes to discrimination of LGBT people in the workplace: in 29 states, including Florida, it is legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation. In 32 states, including Florida, it is legal to fire someone based on their gender identity.
“People are always surprised when they hear that,” Jerame Davis said. “It seems antithetical to basic American values on the one hand, and on the other hand, people are surprised that it’s not already law.”
Davis is the executive director of Pride at Work, an advocacy group founded in 1994 and initially its goals were to fight against the passages of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 1996. While labor activists tend to be supportive of the LGBT community, they were suddenly silent when then President Bill Clinton signed them into law.
“It was very strange to us that labor didn’t speak out,” Davis said.
The group falls under the constituency umbrella of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which has other groups that work to protect African American, Latino, Asian, seniors, and women’s interest groups.
Even though an important part of DOMA has been struck down and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2013, the fight for equality in the workplace still persists. Right now, Pride at Work is fighting on the battlefields of benefits and workplace discrimination, especially for transgender people. The group namely works side by side with labor unions to make things happen.
“The labor movement in general works toward better laws in America for workers so that contracts have some legal underpinning,” Davis said.
Part of the problem is that many people don’t want to talk about it — they’re already ashamed they lost their job, and “in a way you’re coming out twice.” While working in Illinois, Davis said was fired because he was gay. When he fought the company, the parties settled and he had to sign a stringent nondisclosure agreement.
Many who oppose labor unions fear that inept employees are so protected by layers of laws that it makes them un-fireable. Davis said that there are more unjust firings than just firings, and the few bad apples can’t infringe on the rights of the majority. He also noted that employers still find ways of getting rid of employees.
“There are always going to be people who question the protections that other people have,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is there are far more people who are unjustly fired or never get the job in the first place because of discrimination than people who are abusing the system. We can’t deny everybody protection because there are a few people who use it to their advantage.”
Pride@Work not only works to protect LGBT workers in the U.S., but abroad. One of its big projects right now is questioning members of the Trans Pacific Partnership. The trade deal consists of 12 countries, including the U.S., covering about 40 percent of the global economy. However, two members, Brunei and Malaysia, recently implemented phases of religiously based law that calls for the stoning to death of LGBT people and women who have sex outside of marriage.
Ironically, Gambia was thrown out of the partnership because LGBT people can be punished for their sexuality with prison time. Pride at Work is looking for answers of why Brunei and Malaysia are allowed to stay and wants the U.S. to put pressure on those countries.
“The idea that the U.S. would sign up and offer privileged trade partner status to countries that treat their LGBT citizens and women in this way is just beyond the pale,” Davis said. “We shouldn’t be lifting up countries that do this.”
This year, Pride at Work chose Florida for its convention, which is held every three years. Discussions such as the trade agreement as well as elections and planning for the next three years will be integral parts of the convention. They will be meeting at Lake Buena Vista — just outside of Orlando — from August 26 to 29.
“Collective action is more impactful than an individual yelling at the wind,” Davis said.