At a town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, this week, Rand Paul fielded a question about whether there should be laws protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination. He demurred, indicating that people should stay closeted at work and suggesting that LGBT people will always be able to find work elsewhere.
“I think really, the things you do in your house we could just leave those in your house and they wouldn’t have to be part of the workplace, to tell you the truth,” he offered. He went on to suggest that such protections would “set up a whole industry of people who want to sue,” noting it’s “almost impossible” to prove someone has been fired for being gay.
“I don’t know that we need to keep adding to different classifications to say the government needs to be involved in the hiring and firing,” Paul continued. “I think society is rapidly changing, and if you are gay, there are plenty of places that will hire you.” Watch it:
Despite how “absurd” Log Cabin Republicans president Gregory Angelo found the comments to be, there is nothing surprising about this position from Paul. In 2013, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have created LGBT workplace protections. And ENDA isn’t even the full extent of his opposition to nondiscrimination protections; he has previously suggested that he doesn’t even “like the idea of telling private business owners” that they can’t discriminate based on race.
Surprising or not, however, Paul’s comments reveal how little he understands about how discrimination plays out.
“Leave those in your house…”
Paul seems to believe that someone who is LGBT should just keep everything about their identity private. If they are gay, lesbian, or bi, that would mean being totally closeted, never mentioning a partner or family, and never having a single conversation about their personal life with coworkers. For transgender people, they’d have to completely suppress their gender identity, endangering their mental health. This closeting would have a negative impact not just on the employees, but on the entire workplace and economy.
Studies have found that employees who feel safe coming out perform better and even advance more quickly in their careers, while those who hide their identities languish in their careers. What’s more, being out actually improves the productivity of their non-LGBT colleagues, because being out creates trust while remaining closeted raises doubt.
What’s more, workplace discrimination is still a much bigger issue for LGBT people than Paul suggests. Though it’s true, as he noted, that many big companies now have inclusive policies, LGBT employees still prefer to work in the few states that protect against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination at the state level. Nationwide, over half of LGBT workers still hide their identities in the workplace in fear of unfair treatment.
Paul has not kept his sexual identity at home as he suggests others should have to. His offices feature pictures of his family, his presidential campaign features pictures of his family, and his wife even held the Bible when he was sworn into office.
“A whole industry of people who want to sue…”
The claim that LGBT protections would lead to excessive litigation is not new. Other skeptics of the protections, like Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), have made the same argument in the past. (Portman did eventually vote in favor of ENDA.)
Paul couched his point in the idea that it would be difficult to prove that the discrimination took place because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s actually true in some cases, but no moreso than proving any other kind of discrimination that is already protected, like discrimination based on race or religion. Because there is less still less stigma around anti-LGBT discrimination, it’s actually easier to prove in many cases.
For example, when a transgender employee at a Hobby Lobby in Illinois wasn’t allowed to use the restroom because of her gender identity, the discrimination was blatant; Hobby Lobby not only admitted to it but fought to continue it. Catholic-affiliated organizations regularly fire teachers or other employees for coming out as gay or for marrying their partners, telling the employees directly why they can no longer work there. Outlawing discrimination may decrease the acceptability — and thus the rate — of such blatant discrimination, but that would, in fact, be the point of passing such laws.
If a lot of lawsuits were filed, as Paul claims, then that would actually suggest that a lot of discrimination was taking place, contradicting his claim that it isn’t. Either way, the point is easy to reject because many states have had LGBT protections for some time, and no “industry” of litigation has arisen.
Moreover, it’s simply not true. Studies have shown that allowing discrimination adds to businesses’ costs, while policies of fairness and inclusion add to their profits.
“There are plenty of places that will hire you…”
By suggesting that LGBT people can just find a job elsewhere, Paul is rejecting the reality that harm happens when discrimination happens. If a person is fired or not hired for being LGBT, they stop receiving an income, and they may not even lose references that would help them get the next job. This can lead to poverty and a downward spiral that makes it even harder to find that hypothetical next job.
This is particularly true for transgender people. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that nearly 90 percent of trans people had experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job. They experience unemployment at double the national rate — quadruple the national rate if they are people of color. This has led to dire poverty for 15 percent of respondents (household income under $10,000/year), and 16 percent have turned to underground employment, including 11 percent who turned to sex work, because they could find no other job.
The picture just isn’t as rosy as Paul seems to believe. Democrats in Congress have introduced The Equality Act, which would create nationwide protections guaranteeing LGBT people are protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, but so far, not a single Republican has endorsed it.