On Monday, President Barack Obama issued and signed a historic executive order aimed at protecting workers at federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — with no exemption based on ‘religious freedom.’ The executive order will apply to 24,000 companies designated as federal contractors whose 28 million workers make up a fifth of the country’s workforce.
I was lucky. I had a painless coming out experience and for the most part, five carefree years of living out openly. When I came out to my parents, the issue of concern was whether or not I was moving to New York, not that I liked girls. My friends and other family members were just as excited for me; even my 82-year-old Republican grandfather called me crying to let me know he still loved me and that I was the same granddaughter to him.
As accepted and celebrated as I have been while being out, there was one year when I was heavily discriminated against at my then place of employment. I am a special education teacher and at this particular job, there were two students who were being targeted for being gay. Even though I followed the chain of command and appropriately reported these incidents, nothing was done to stop the bullying. Adding insult to injury, I was pulled into two separate meetings with the principal, HR manager and the HR director informing me that my actions were ‘pushing my own personal agenda, creating an unsafe working environment,’ and if ‘I did not stop, I would have to find a new job’.
Never in my life have I felt so vulnerable, unsafe, ignored, belittled, shamed or frightened. I gained twenty pounds due to sheer anxiety. I can remember sitting in my cubicle eating handful after handful of dried yogurt-covered berries because I was so lost in anxiety that I did not know what else to do. Every morning when my alarm went off, I snoozed repeatedly because I was too terrified to get out of bed.
No one should have to work under those conditions. No one should be discriminated against for simply being who they are.
The founding of the United States was — theoretically, if not realistically — centered on the concepts of equality and freedom. And yet, our country has historically disenfranchised large swaths of its population. LGBT individuals and members of this community are no exception. People are being fired for being gay or for marrying their partner.
President Obama, a straight man, has taken a stand advocating for and demanding equal rights and protections for the LGBT community. By signing this executive order, Obama has not granted the LGBT community any ‘special privileges’. Rather, he has included them in the same workplace freedoms granted to everyone but them. And while the executive order extends only to federal contractors, it represents a huge step towards granting LGBT individuals the equality and freedom they have been legally denied, and it is a welcome sign of things to come.