BY BOB PACKWOOD, firstname.lastname@example.org
Forty years ago, when I first came to the U.S. Senate, it was entirely possible for an employer to fire workers because of their sexual orientation, and that remains true today in 30 states. In 38 states, it is true for gender identity as well. Today there is no federal law banning employment discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity. That baffles many of us.
Consider just 10 years into the Senate, on Sept. 18, 1979, I took part in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
President Jimmy Carter named Florida Governor Reubin Askew to be our nation's Trade Representative, and we were talking about America's trade priorities. There were no real surprises during the questioning.
An unusual moment arose, however, when three gay civil-rights leaders were permitted to speak in opposition to Askew's nomination. Under committee rules, none were permitted to directly question Askew at the hearing. As a senator, however, I had that power, and I used it.
For the first time in congressional history, perhaps, we embarked on new ground on civil rights. I asked Askew whether he had said these words, ``I would not have a homosexual on my staff.''
The official hearing record makes it clear:
Askew: ``Yes sir, I did. I said a known homosexual, and I would not.''
I asked if that was his present position, and he confirmed it was true. His position was well known because of his support for Anita Bryant's efforts in Dade County to deny ``homosexuals'' employment rights and specifically, the ability to teach in schools in 1977.
I followed up again and asked if it was his position to ``not have a homosexual'' on his staff. He responded, ``I would not have a known homosexual on my staff, simply, senator, by virtue of the tremendous problems it presents in dealing with public constituencies.''
I asked, ``If I understand your answer to the extent that you can, within the bounds of the law, you intend to follow the policy as Special Trade Representative of not hiring known homosexuals?''
Askew: ``Let us put it this way, senator, that I would follow whatever the personnel policy of the federal government is, but in the selections I have made thus far -- and I have very little flexibility in hiring -- I have not, and would not.''
Thirty years ago, a nominee for Cabinet rank declared that he was perfectly within America's laws and customs to deny jobs to individuals -- despite their obvious talents, qualifications and fitness -- simply because of their sexual orientation.
The Senate soon confirmed Askew, trusting President Carter's cabinet choice. I do not know Askew's views today. We have not spoken, and all attempts to find out were unanswered. But I am very aware of America's opinions today. An overwhelming majority of all Americans agree that it is simply not fair to discriminate in the workplace so unfairly and so blatantly. For many of us, it was kind of a wake-up call, too.
Extend fair employment practices, not special rights.
It was one reason I agreed to cosponsor the bipartisan federal gay civil-rights legislation of that session, along with my colleagues and fellow Republicans like Lowell Weicker and Democrats such as Ted Kennedy and Paul Tsongas.
It was thinking like that and the campaign by Askew's ally, Bryant, that motivated Harvey Milk to enter not just city politics but also the national stage to change hearts and minds by first changing laws.
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act has just been reintroduced in Congress, to extend fair employment practices, not special rights, and to add sexual orientation and gender identity to those we have in law today based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability.
Corporate America also knows that basic fairness is good business. Almost 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have precisely the same nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and almost a third cover gender identity. The nation can benefit from their best practices.
After three decades, isn't it time we conclude this chapter by ending this discrimination and urge Congress to make all workplaces equally accepting of Americans who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? It's never too late to do the right thing.
Bob Packwood served in the U.S. Senate from 1969 to 1995, and as chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for several years.