Obama announces executive order protecting transgender federal employees

Photo: Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at the White House LGBT Pride Month reception. Credit: Ward Morrison/Metro Weekly.

Photo: Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at the White House LGBT Pride Month reception. Credit: Ward Morrison/Metro Weekly.

President Barack Obama announced Monday that he would take additional executive action to protect LGBT workers by signing an executive order to protect transgender federal employees from discrimination.

During the White House’s annual LGBT Pride Month reception, which has been held every year since Obama took office, the president said he would take such action in addition to a long-sought executive order announced earlier this month prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“If Congress won’t act, I will. I have directed my staff to prepare an executive order for my signature that prohibits discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Obama said. “And I’ve asked my staff to prepare a second executive order so that federal employees –- who are already protected on the basis of sexual orientation –- will now formally be protected from discrimination based on gender identity as well.”

White House spokesman Shin Inouye provided no further details on the executive order announced Monday. Speaking to reporters last week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the executive order for federal contractors is still in the drafting stage. 

“It’s my understanding that there is an ongoing process as it relates to the drafting of an executive order that would take the kinds of steps the President has talked about quite a bit. But at this point, I don’t have any update for you in terms of the content or the timing of that executive order,” Earnest said. 

In May 1998, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the federal civilian workforce. However, that executive order did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

“Today President Obama proved yet again why he will be remembered as the most pro-LGBT president in history,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “Each and every American worker should be judged based on the work they do, and never because of a fundamental aspect of who they are – like their gender identity. And the federal government, like employers across America, is best served by ensuring every qualified individual are able to serve without fear of discrimination.”

According to Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the executive order stands to provide concrete protections for many of the same transgender federal employees who have been at the forefront of implementing the Obama administration’s transgender-rights achievements.

“Though this administration has previously interpreted existing law to cover transgender federal employees, updating the language of this executive order makes it 100% clear that transgender federal employees must be treated equally at work,” Keisling said in a statement. “Significantly, this new order gives transgender advocates new tools to advocate for further protections in the face of a gridlocked U.S. House of Representatives that refuses to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”

Earlier Monday, Obama also announced executive actions he will take on immigration reform and lamented the fact that he is compelled to do so thanks to entrenched House Republicans.

“I don’t prefer taking administrative action. I’d rather see permanent fixes to the issue we face. Certainly that’s true on immigration,” Obama said. “There are a whole bunch of things where I would greatly prefer Congress actually do something. I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing. And in this situation, the failure of House Republicans to pass a darn bill is bad for our security, it’s bad for our economy, and it’s bad for our future.”

At the beginning of this year Obama announced a shifting strategy to use his pen to take executive action when Congress won’t act. Since the Senate approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with a 64-32 vote in November, the bill has languished in the House of Representatives where Republican leadership have refused to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote. It is still legal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity in 32 states and on the basis of sexual orientation in 29 states.

During his remarks Monday, Obama renewed his criticism of Congress for having not yet passed federal legislation prohibiting LGBT workplace discrimination.

“I’ve repeatedly called on Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Obama said. “Right now, there are more states that let same-sex couples get married than there are states who prohibit discrimination against their LGBT workers.  We have laws that say Americans can’t be fired on the basis of the color of their skin or their religion, or because they have a disability. But every day, millions of Americans go to work worried that they could lose their job -– not because of anything they’ve done.”

“I know, it’s terrible,” Obama continued, as a baby in the audience began to cry. “It’s upsetting. It is wrong.”

Obama also cited a long list of LGBT accomplishments during his remarks, drawing cheers from the energetic crowd. In particular, the president repeated his calls for LGBT-rights activists to direct their energy and resources toward other “injustices,” including progressive causes such as raising the minimum wage, youth homelessness, equal pay and eliminating racial and religious discrimination.

“Dr. King said an ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ And that means that we’ve got to be able to set up a community that extends beyond our own particular narrow interests; we’ve got to make sure that we’re reaching out to others who need our help as well,” Obama said. “That’s how we continue our nation’s march towards justice and equality.  That’s how we build a more perfect union –- a country where no matter what you look like, where you come from, what your last name is, who you love, you’ve got a chance to make it if you try. You guys have shown what can happen when people of goodwill organize and stand up for what’s right. And we’ve got to make sure that that’s not applied just one place, in one circumstance, in one time. That’s part of the journey that makes America the greatest country on Earth.”

Read Obama’s full remarks on the following page.

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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