Obama issues executive order to protect federal LGBT employees

In a sudden but not necessarily unexpected gesture, the White House indicated today that President Obama has “directed his staff” to prepare an executive order to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The White House official could not say how soon President Obama intends to sign the executive order. But the news comes during Pride Month and just two weeks before the White House hosts its annual reception in celebration of Pride Month. And it comes just one day before President Obama is scheduled to be at an LGBT-related fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in New York.

It also comes as much of the nation’s attention is riveted to a escalating civil war in Iraq that threatens to provoke U.S. military response and to an “urgent humanitarian” crisis in which more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors are crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. every day.

Word that President Obama plans to sign a federal contractor executive order to protect LGBT employees spread lightning fast yesterday.

The Human Rights Campaign called the news the “culmination of six years of advocacy by the members and supporters of the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT and civil rights leaders, and allies on Capitol Hill.”

It also comes after months of mixed signals from the White House. On Jan. 31, John Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Clinton who had just joined the Obama White House as Counselor to the President, said an executive order was “under consideration at the White House –we’re looking at that.” But then White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, on that same day, said he didn’t have any updates on “a hypothetical executive order for LGBT non-discrimination” and added that it’s “the wrong approach.” He said the president thought ENDA is “the right way to go here.”

In Georgia, this executive order does not protect state employees and Georgia currently does not have a state workplace protection statute.

National groups were quick to respond to the news.

Greg Nevins, attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta and Lambda Legal’s workplace fairness strategist, released a statement:

“An executive order will provide explicit protection against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination to 11 million employees who don’t have legally-recognized protections now according to a study by the Williams Institute. And it would ensure that there are at least some workplaces in every state with clear, legally binding protections for LGBT Americans,” he said.

“From the thousands of calls for help that Lambda Legal gets each year, we know that workplace discrimination is one of the most frequent problems that LGBT people face. Workplace equality has been a top priority for Lambda Legal for more than forty years. We look forward to bringing our expertise about this urgent community need into the conversations with the Obama administration as the executive order is finalized.”

Pride at Work interim Executive Director Jerame Davis said their is still a strong need for a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“We are glad the president is taking this important step to protect federal contractor employees from discrimination on the job,” said Pride at Work interim Executive Director Jerame Davis in a statement. “But unfortunately for many Americans—especially in states with no employment discrimination protections—their only option for workplace protections is still a strong union contract.

“Congress still must act to pass ENDA to ensure that all LGBT Americans are protected from workplace discrimination. Only 18 states currently ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity while three other states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation alone. With marriage equality sweeping the nation, it is unconscionable that gays and lesbians could still be fired for putting a photo of their legal spouse on their desk at work.”

GetEQUAL added there must be no religious exemptions in the executive order to be signed by the president.

“We’re thrilled that the White House is finally taking action on LGBT workplace discrimination—action that is long overdue, but that will finally begin to address the enormous hurdles that LGBT individuals face in finding and keeping a job in this country,” said GetEQUAL Co-Director Heather Cronk in a statement. “It is now vitally important for all of us to insist that this executive order, when eventually signed by the president, does not include religious exemptions that would permit taxpayer dollars to be spent on discrimination. We will continue to be vigilant about this important aspect of the executive order—LGBT Americans need these protections immediately, and without the gaping holes that exemptions would create.”

— Dyana Bagby contributed.