Effort to stop workplace bias against gays, lesbians spurs mixed reactions

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As a lesbian with more than a decade of experience in biotechnology, Deb Connor has seen attitudes about gays in the workplace evolve, and she credits anti-discrimination laws for helping break down barriers.

"It's difficult to legislate peoples' attitudes," Connor said, as quoted in the New Hampshire Business Review. "It's great knowing legally you have the same chance as anyone else to get that promotion, but bad attitudes can make going to work tough, and the only thing that takes care of this is time and maybe education - once people take the time to get to know you and get beyond the stereotypes, the issues go away."

Connor's state has protected its workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1998, and that allows gay and lesbians to educate their co-workers by example, she said.

Connor said the atmosphere at her workplace is pleasant and welcoming, and Congress is attempting to put similar protections in place across the country.

The House last week passed legislation that would add sexual orientation to a list of federally protected classes in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007, also known as ENDA. The measure would prohibit an employer from using an individual's sexual orientation as the basis for hiring, firing, promotion, or compensation.

After several postponements, the bill was changed to remove protection for transgender workers. While Democrats called it politically necessary to get the bill passed, hundreds of lesbian, gay, and transgender leaders opposed the exclusion.

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the bill "does not have the support of the vast majority of LGBT rights organizations across the country," referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups.

"This would be a much tougher conversation if ENDA was moving into law," Foreman said. "It's not moving into law. It would take a miracle for us to move it through the Senate, and the White House has always said Bush would veto it. That's what's made this entire episode so confounding and painful and inexplicable."

The White House last month called the bill constitutionally inconsistent with the free exercise of religion and uses language that is "imprecise" and makes enforcement "extremely difficult," The Wall Street Journal reported. However, it is the first time legislation of this kind has advanced so far in either chamber. That, in itself, is a victory, Democratic leaders say.

While New Hampshire has protections in place, it is still legal to fire a worker based on sexual orientation in 30 states.

Workers' fears about disclosing a gay identity at work result in "overwhelmingly negative relationship with their career and workplace experiences and with their psychological well-being," according to University of Wisconsin research. Researchers questioned more than 500 gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees across the U.S. Those who reported feeling fearful "had less positive job and career attitudes, received fewer promotions, and reported more physical stress-related symptoms than those who reported less fear," according to the study, published in The Journal of Applied Psychology.

In commenting on the study, Robert-Jay Green, executive director of the Rockway Institute, a national center for LGBT research and public policy, said, "Employees who are not afraid of being fired or held back from promotion because of their same-sex orientations are psychologically freer to put their full creative energies into work. This, in turn, saves employers' time and money. It a win-win for all concerned."

Connor said: "There was a time when you kept your mouth shut at work - you were never sure how people would react. Today people in general are more comfortable with the issue, and at work it's become more about how hard you work and how well you do your job. That's the way it should be."

You can read the complete text of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007.

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