The following is a guest post by Enbar Cohen, City of Aventura Commissioner and member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
As Congress prepares to consider the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), I have been reflecting on my own journey to self-acceptance from my starting point as a closeted young lesbian. I was raised in a conservative Jewish household and was told by those surrounding me that gay people couldn’t carry high-level executive jobs – that reputable companies avoid having openly gay employees representing their brand at important meetings.
Knowing that I could be fired for being gay created a fear in me. At the age of sixteen, I was already crafting a strategy on how to present as heterosexual in the workplace, how not to give rise to any suspicions about my sexuality. I was studying the art of inauthenticity and came to the conclusion that I had to out-perform and out-work everyone in order to shift the focus from my personality to my productivity.
No person should ever have to feel this way.
I wanted my parents to be proud, especially after I had “shamed” them when I came “out.” I wanted to show them that my sexuality wouldn’t be a barrier for me in the workplace. While I don’t usually agree with his politics, I applauded Sen. Rob Portman for knowing the importance of not only supporting his son, but of doing the right thing for all Americans’ freedom to marry. When a parent advocates for their LGBT child or family member, they provide critically important acceptance that strengthens the spirit of that person. With a Senate vote on ENDA coming up, you should remember that, Sen. Portman.
Today I am open and proud. I want to show people, especially the youth that I have worked with, that you can be LGBT and still be successful in the workplace. That hard work and integrity take precedent over sexuality. Days after my 24th birthday, I was elected as the youngest openly lesbian elected official in the United States.
But employment discrimination is still a very real problem. Last summer I met a woman at an LGBT networking event. After mentioning she was a high-level executive at a pharmaceutical company, she promptly informed me that she wasn’t gay. Later in our conversation, her anxiety was palpable as she whispered to me that she was, in fact, a lesbian. Her words – “I’ve worked too hard to get where I am to be let go for something like that” – have been etched in my mind ever since.
Discrimination is never okay. That someone can be fired because they are LGBT is blatant discrimination and is contrary to our American values. Employees should be judged based on their passion and commitment to their work, their integrity, their work performance – not their sexual orientation. Our laws communicate where our values and priorities are as a nation. They ought to be representative of where Americans stand, and they ought to serve and protect all of us. Americans agree on ENDA.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The time is always right to do what’s right.” The time to protect all Americans from workplace discrimination is now.