Bill to ban anti-LGBT employment discrimination statewide will again be among Equality Texas’ top priorities in upcoming session
GRANBURY — When Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger passed away, Marty Edwards said a co-worker at First National Bank of Granbury asked who Ledger was.
“He was some faggot in a gay cowboy movie,” a senior loan officer answered. “Who cares if he died.”
When Edwards, who’s gay, was later passed over for a promotion, he talked to a human resources representative and an executive vice president.
“They said it was not my work because I did a great job,” Edwards said. “I was told that one guy who has three kids, a wife and white picket fence home was a better fit for the image we are looking for.”
After years of enduring an increasingly hostile work environment, Edwards was fired in September. He is convinced it was because of his sexual orientation. But in Texas, attorneys say there’s nothing he can do about it.
Texas is one of 29 states that lacks employment protections for gays, while 34 states don’t protect transgender workers. The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban anti-LGBT job discrimination, remains stalled in Congress.
While some cities in Texas prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination, their ordinances lack teeth because there is no state or federal law to back them up.
State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, has again filed a bill to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in Texas. The bill, a state version of ENDA, is among Equality Texas’ top priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
“It’s a civil rights issue for us, but a broader and more appealing discussion point is hiring and firing decisions should be based on ability to perform the job,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said, adding that he’s hoping the bill will be assigned to the Economic and Small Business Development Committee as it was in the last session.
“They’re more receptive to economic arguments. Texas is competing for major employers to relocate here.”
Edwards began working for FNB Granbury in July 2001 after graduating from college and worked there more than 11 years.
He said when he was hired, bank executives began grooming him for promotion into management. That stopped about five years ago when he came out.
Contacted for this article, FNB Granbury HR director Lisa Hopkins said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters.
“There’s more than one side to every story,” Hopkins said. “He was fired for legitimate reasons.”
Granbury is in Hood County, about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
Edwards said co-workers and management never tried to hide their disgust of his sexual orientation after he came out.
He described the environment as hostile — not just toward him but toward all LGBT people.
A transgender man who owns a local construction company banks with the company. Edwards said that when the trans man was in his branch, others would send him an instant message.
“Let me know when it’s leaving,” they’d say. “I want to know what it looks like.”
After enduring increasing amounts of harassment at work, Edwards sought counseling.
He said Hopkins told him he needed counseling because “you obviously have some things messed up in your head.”
Since he was fired, Edwards has spoken to about a dozen attorneys. None of them would take his employment discrimination case. He discussed a number of angles with attorneys, including firing for retaliation or for seeking counseling and having to endure a hostile work environment.
Fort Worth attorney Susan Hutchison said, “Sexual orientation is not a protected category in Texas and so retaliation for reporting such discrimination is also not protected.”
Hutchison said Edwards asked her if his employers could “say whatever they want about someone’s sexual orientation and make the workplace hostile but I can’t do anything about it.” Her frustrated response was, “More or less.”
Other attorneys told Edwards that creating a hostile work environment only happens legally when comments like those mentioned refer to a protected class.
A study by the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank affiliated with UCLA, found that a bill like Villarreal’s would protect 431,095 LGBT Texans from employment discrimination and have a minimal impact on the state’s budget.
In a national 2008 study, 37 percent of gays and lesbians who responded said they experienced workplace harassment during the previous five years and 12 percent had lost a job because of their sexual orientation. In a national 2010 study of transgender people, 78 percent said they were harassed and mistreated at work.
Based on experiences in other states, Williams Institute expected an additional 203 employment discrimination complaints in Texas per year.
Smith said Texas is an attractive place to do business, but companies will question whether their entire workforce would transfer here without statewide protections because of the perception some of their employees are not wanted in Texas.
Williams Institute estimates the cost of the law to Texas would be $300,000 the first year and less after that. The report concludes that although there is some administrative cost, nondiscrimination laws attract talented employees, boost productivity and increase satisfaction in the workplace.
Asked whether he thinks a state ENDA would have changed things at FNB Granbury, Smith said he thinks most employers like to follow the rules and be good employers but he acknowledges that some won’t.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 4, 2013.