by Reverend David Weekley
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was first introduced in the 103rd Congress as S.2238 in 1994. This act would protect employees from job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Senate and Human Resources Committee held its first hearings on ENDA that same year. There was no substantive action taken at that time. Thirteen years later, ENDA of 2007 was introduced into the 110th Congress (H.R. 2015). This version of ENDA included protection for those who indentify as transgender. Hearings were held by the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor. These hearings eventually led to the re-introduction of a sexual orientation-only version of ENDA during this same session of congress. Discussion of this version of the bill eventually led to the first House floor vote, and the sexual orientation-only bill passed 235-184 (Roll Call No. 1057). While the passage of this act was very good news for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, it left those who identify as transgender without legal protection in regards to employment discrimination. Another version of ENDA was introduced in April 2011 in the 112th Congress (S.811). The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing in June of 2012, but to date no action has been taken. The result of inaction means that today only 16% of states and Washington D.C. ban employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
This brief overview of The Employment Non-Discrimination Act offers the cold, objective facts about the state of ENDA today, but it does not provide the stories or faces of those who daily face employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity. As a transgender man and as a pastor who has worked with many transgender people I know first-hand of the blatant and subtle forms employment discrimination may take. In my most recent congregation, of the ten transgender women and men who were members, only one had full-time employment or any job at all; six of the ten survived solely on disability income, relying on food stamps and subsidized housing. The grim reality is that 68% of transgender people report employment discrimination. This does not include those who fail to report such discrimination, those who have given up trying to enter the work force at all, or those transgender people who remain closeted within their homes out of fear of verbal or physical abuse. Information gleaned from a recent survey provides additional statistics that are directly related to employment discrimination and lack of employment within the transgender community. These statistics are related to poverty levels, health care issues, and the general well-being of transgender people:
- 15% of Transgender people live in poverty
- 62% of Transgender people have experienced depression
- 50% of Transgender people have seriously considered or attempted suicide
- 51% of Transgender people avoid seeking medical care because of an inability to pay
As the Body of Christ in the world today, the church is called to stand in solidarity with those who identify as transgender, and to advocate for the inclusion of the transgender community in the Employment Non-discrimination Act. Such solidarity will assist transgender people to securely participate in the workforce, enjoying the human dignity inherent in meaningful labor and community.
In Laborem Exercens John Paul II discusses work as providing specific dignity to human life. In this same vein he speaks of the responsibility of both direct employers and indirect employers, (i.e. agents and agencies at national and international levels responsible for labor policies) to create and implement policies and practices that advocate for suitable employment of all those who are able to work. He then defines unemployment as the opposite of such a “just and right” situation. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker Movement also speaks of the human desire and need for meaningful work. In a discussion concerning the significance of community and a new social order Day references the slogan “Work, not wages” and comments, “Men wanted work more than they wanted bread, and they wanted to be responsible for their work, which meant ownership.” While she is speaking specifically about her involvement in the workers struggle during the industrial revolution this comment is also applicable to transgender persons seeking employment today. In this same volume Day is critical of the church’s lack of involvement and leadership at that time. Describing how Jesus was born in a stable, worked with his hands, lived his early years in exile, and called the working poor as his first disciples, she laments “businesslike priests” who consent to the poverty, exploitation, and oppression of racial and cultural minorities of her day, responding to the marginalization of whole groups of people “more like Cain than Able.” She remarks that such priests appeared to respond to injustice within the social order by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Day then speaks of Jesus’ acquaintance with migrant workers and draws upon the parable of the workers in the vineyard, describing the point of the story as supporting a living wage, not equal pay for equal work. The concerns expressed for those facing discrimination, unemployment or underemployment and adverse social conditions during the time of the industrial revolution in The Long Loneliness are also pertinent to transgender people facing similar conditions today.
Thirty years after Dorothy Day published her autobiography John Paul II issued Laborem Exercens, where he, too, draws upon Scripture as the basis for the church’s position regarding human labor. Referring to the church’s position on human work as founded in Christ, John Paul II writes: “Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow people as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it.”
Because the church affirms work as a human responsibility, a primary source of human dignity, and the fundamental means by which all people provide for their needs and those of their family it is imperative that the church stand in solidarity with those who identify as transgender in seeking the passage of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that includes protection for transgender people. John Paul II affirms: “But the church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help guide . . . changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.” Regardless of the church’s official position concerning the origin or validity of those who identify as transgender, Roman Catholic authors such as Dorothy Day, and the Laborem Exercens Encyclical Letter presented by John Paul II clearly affirm the church bears a moral responsibility to advocate for the full protection and inclusion of transgender people in their pursuit of vocational fulfillment.
John Paul II, “Laborem Exercens” To his Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, to the Priests to the Religious Families, to the sons and daughters of the Church and to all Men and Women of good will on Human Work on the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 14 September,1981, p.1 (see: Blessing)
Day, Dorothy, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: Harper, 1952, 1980), p. 227
John Paul II, p.3
Ibid. p. 11