This statement was delivered on May 5, 2009, in Washington, DC.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister in the Tampa Bay region of Florida I have experienced firsthand, and been deeply troubled by, a question that cuts to the very core of who we are as Americans, and that question is this: barring economic circumstances, do we have the right to fire people from the workplace for factors other than merit? Can we fire people just because we feel like it?
The answer should seem obvious—we are a country that values hard work, and believes in rewarding hard work. We believe that people who are excelling at their jobs should be able to keep their jobs. And, yet, this commonly held understanding is not our reality. We need look no further than to former Largo, FL, City Manager Susan Stanton for proof of this fact.
In February of 2007, Stanton was identified by The Saint Petersburg Times as being in the midst of a gender reassignment process. Stanton had served Largo faithfully and well for over 14 years, with strong job evaluations, and in fact had earned a pay increase in the preceding year. Upon this story breaking, Largo City Commissioners called for an emergency hearing, and subsequently voted to fire Stanton, explaining that ‘the public had lost confidence’ in her.
What had we, the public, lost confidence in...? Was it Stanton...? Or was it our own ability to work side-by-side with individuals who are different from us? Was it our commitment to judge people on the merit and quality of their work, and not on the basis of identity? Yes, the city of Largo indeed faced a crisis of confidence, but not in Stanton, it was a crisis of confidence in the American dream.
I am not transgender, and I don’t consider myself to be an activist on transgender issues: I am an activist when it comes to human dignity. We are all activists when it comes to human dignity because we all know how we would want to be treated ourselves—with compassion and respect, with openness and understanding, with the ability to work hard and be rewarded for it.
Employment discrimination is alive and well, and even beyond that physical violence against bi, gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans is alive and well. We mustn’t be silent, we musn’t be complicit with violence of any kind, be it the psychological violence of discrimination or the physical violence of hatred. It is time to respond, it is time to protect those at risk.
I call on our Congress to pass a fully inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, one that includes gender identity, and to protect the safety of every American citizen, through passage of H.R. 1913 The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The Rev. Manish K. Mishra is Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Saint Petersburg, FL.