When Barack Obama was running for President in 2008, I thought he was serious about protecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from workplace discrimination. He made two key promises — that he would sign an executive order providing workplace protections by federal contractors, and that he would help pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), ending workplace discrimination by all employers. I contributed to the campaign, expecting that if elected, he would keep his word to fight for our community.
Five years later, I’m still waiting. Despite having this executive order sitting on his desk, the president has yet to pick up his pen. While many employers have added nondiscrimination policies on their own, prominent holdouts such as Exxon Mobil set a damaging, dangerous precedent. Millions of LGBT Americans continue to experience the enormous pain of living and working in the closet, not allowed to acknowledge who we are and who we love.
As a gray-haired, 56-year-old lesbian, I don’t have time to wait another generation for equality — it’s been almost 40 years since similar legislation to ENDA was first introduced in Congress. And being polite hasn’t gotten us any closer to it becoming a reality.
When I attended a Democratic National Committee (DNC) fundraiser a few days ago, I brought this sense of urgency. When I blurted out my comments during the first lady’s speech, it was a spontaneous reaction to her saying, “Right now, today, we have an obligation to stand up for those kids.” I needed to speak up for LGBT youth, who make up 40 percent of homeless youth — kicked out onto the street because parents and workplaces won’t accept them for who they are — and for LGBT parents, whose lack of workplace protections imperils their children’s futures.
Some have said that the first lady wasn’t a proper target because she is not an elected official. However, time and again, the first lady has come to our community and asked us to “max out” on our contributions to the DNC. In fact, she had just made the same request of several hundred LGBT attendees, days after Senate Democrats had refused to include same-sex binational couples in their immigration reform bill. Despite the Democratic Party happily cashing LGBT checks, I have not seen the Obama administration “max out” on the myriad ways that the government could protect the LGBT community.
For most of my life, I have been in one closet or another, as my “coming out” process took decades. I remained in the work closet the longest, as a public servant doing environmental and consumer protection work. In the mid-90s, in the final round of interviews for a position I was offered and accepted, I was asked why I was moving to the area. I lied and responded that I was moving to help take care of a “family member.” The interviewer seemed satisfied with the response, not wanting to pry further and assuming it was an elderly parent. In truth, it was my partner of seven years — who I felt I had to hide and whose humanity I felt ashamed to acknowledge.
After years of these lonely, isolating and dehumanizing experiences, I’ve only recently been able to find the strength to advocate for myself and millions of others.
It is in small moments each day that LGBT Americans have to make choices about whether to acknowledge the truth of our own lives or hide ourselves away. We make choices about displaying family photos on a desk, or eating lunch alone to avoid questions about weekend plans, or ducking away from co-workers while out at dinner with friends. And it is in these moments that low-income LGBT Americans must choose between their humanity and a paycheck — knowing that making ends meet often means slowly chipping away at one’s identity.
Mrs. Obama has accomplished extraordinary things and is inarguably the conscience of the White House. She understands injustice at a deep level, and it was that political conscience I was hoping to stir at this week’s fundraiser. Some have said it was disrespectful for a white woman to interrupt an African American woman, or for an activist to interrupt the first lady. All I can say is that in that moment, I could no longer remain silent while standing in front of one of our country’s most powerful political figures. I spoke up for the millions of LGBT Americans who have to make small and excruciating choices each day about the extent to which they are able to live safe and honest lives.
My hope is that the first lady sees me as just one of millions who are desperate to participate fully in the American dream — a dream she is helping to build for millions across this country. After being locked out of that dream for so long, I hope President Obama considers the desperation we all feel for equality and signs this executive order.
Ellen Sturtz is a retired public servant and an advocate for LGBT equality.