Floridians Fight for LGBT Workplace Rights

Floridians Fight for LGBT Workplace Rights

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Gay rights took a leap forward when the U.S. Senate voted 64-32 to approve the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The Nov. 7 landmark victory bans workplace discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community who have been on the frontlines of workforce protection for the past 17 years.

The bill now goes to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, where it faces an uncertain future. If it does pass the House, chances are that President Obama will sign it.

Still, for LGBT Floridians, Senate passage brings optimism that the law will extend their current civil rights and safeguard them from discriminatory employment practices that hinder promotions and sometimes lead to termination.

Seeking acceptance

When Sarah Perez left her St. Croix, Virgin Islands hometown in 2006 to live in the United States, her family didn’t know she was a lesbian. They still remain in the dark.

Perez was one of many Hispanics forced to live in a shroud of secrecy in the West Indies, where alternative lifestyles are shunned – if not forbidden.

“Two women holding hands in St. Croix is something you just never see,” said Perez.
At age 19, she moved to Jacksonville with her former lesbian partner and childhood friend.

“I also moved to the U.S. because I wanted to be able to be myself,” explained Perez. “Back home, I couldn’t even dress the way I wanted to.”

For the past two years, she has been an employee at an AutoZone auto parts retailer in Jacksonville. She started as a part-time sales clerk; she recently was promoted to sales manager.

Ridiculed in workplace

Though her employer has recognized her ability to get the job done, Perez admits she suffers occasional ridicule from co-workers, but she doesn’t experience direct employment discrimination.

“I told my job I was gay because I knew they suspected after my girlfriend kept coming in the store,” she said. “They make jokes that sometimes hurt my feelings, and the other day a transgendered male came in and one of the employees laughed and said, ‘Did ya’ll see that?’ Transgenders always have it worse, but everyone in the LGBT community gets ridiculed,” she added.

Bipartisan state bill

In a March poll conducted by the Bob Graham Center for Public Service in conjunction with the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, 73 percent of Floridians support a bill that would protect gay and lesbians against workplace discrimination.

On Nov. 5, State Representatives Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) and Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) pushed for passage of a bipartisan bill to ban discrimination in the state for the LGBT community in employment, public accommodations and housing.

An anti-discrimination measure titled HB 239, the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, would amend Florida laws that currently prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or marital status.

Democrats recognize that 26 municipalities in Florida have implemented ordinances for gay rights – most in the southern portion of the peninsula. Statewide legislation would eliminate limitations to have workplace rights protected in one county, yet denied less than 25 miles down the road.

“From the GOP perspective, our main focus is the economy and jobs,” stated Raschein. “And this is what we’re talking about. People’s jobs, people’s livelihoods.”

Supported by company

The vocal presence of LGBT women helps the legislative efforts.

One of them is Gina Duncan, who ran for Orange County (Orlando-area) commissioner in 2012 as an openly transgendered candidate. She told the Nov. 5 press conference how she worked at Wells Fargo, managing more than 200 people, when she went through a sex change process. The company supported her.

“Corporate America is good with Florida’s Competitive Workforce Act,” said Duncan, who is on the board of Equality Florida and joined Saunders and Raschein as a state co-sponsor. “Corporate America wants this bill.”

Advocates for change

Willetta “Mamado’’ Smith of Jacksonville said working as an independent musician and club owner has proven to offer more personal freedom and peace than being antagonistically mocked on the job.

Smith, 54, has been openly gay since she was a teen and is engaged to marry her long-term partner, Universal Recording artist Alea Janee Dennis. The lesbian couple applauded the efforts to defeat the Defense of Marriage Act and efforts to ban gay marriage. But she believes greater advocacy and sensitivity is necessary for ENDA to become law.

“In the late 1980s, I worked for UPS and helped stock trucks,” said Smith. “I always felt like they never really wanted me there and I never would have gotten that job, but my father was a 40-year company veteran so that got me in.”

In an incident she reported, Smith cites a group of men on their lunch break watching her load trucks outside.

“I heard them laughing and one said he could tell I was a ‘dyke,’ ” Smith related. “I didn’t want an altercation or to say anything I’d regret, so I asked UPS management to move my work duty inside, and they did.”

Challenges for immigrants

Immigrants on the path to citizenship who also are members of the LGBT community face a unique double jeopardy. They must provide evidence of employment to secure a visa.

According to analysis by the Williams Institute, a national thinktank headquartered at the UCLA law school, there are nearly 1 million LGBT adult immigrants living in the United States today. Thirty percent are undocumented.

“Both segments of the community living at the intersection of a marginalized population need workforce protection,” Sharita Gruberg, policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based independent nonpartisan educational institute, said this week.

“They need ENDA to pass and provide a ban against employment discrimination because loss of employment equates to poverty, they lose ties to communities, and it affects their social, economic, and psychological well-being.”

Gruberg added, “We have discovered that the passage of ENDA is not just about an LGBT endorsement. People don’t want their government to support discrimination against anyone – whether they are immigrants or gay.”

This article was produced as part of New America Media's LGBT immigration reporting fellowship sponsored by the Four Freedoms Fund.