Congress

The Senate lacks protections for LGBTQ staff. One group is demanding change

Existing laws for legislative branch workers don’t explicitly protect LGBTQ employees

A Senate staffer group is urging offices to adopt policy manuals that include protections for LGBTQ employees from discrimination. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Congress considers expanding civil rights to encompass LGBTQ Americans, Senate staffers want their bosses to shore up such protections for the congressional workforce itself. 

In a letter sent April 8, the bipartisan Senate GLASS Caucus urged chamber offices to adopt policy manuals that include protections for LGBTQ employees from discrimination.

The group said the Senate does not currently have standing rules or procedures that prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, with individual offices and committees determining their own policies. 

The letter comes amid hearings in the House about the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations and programs that use federal funding such as Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Veterans Affairs clinics, and health plans sold on the individual market.

Founded in 2004, the nonpartisan GLASS Caucus focuses much of its energy on professional development through a mentoring program. Part of its mission is to raise awareness about issues affecting the LGBTQ community.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (formerly the Office of Compliance) is responsible for implementing and enforcing the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which extends several anti-discrimination statutes to legislative branch employees.

While the law does not explicitly protect those employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, OCWR spokeswoman Laura Cech pointed out that the CAA does provide “protection from sex discrimination” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“The OCWR Board looks to the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] in applying Title 7, and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation may be considered a violation of protections against sex discrimination,” she said in an email.

Office policies still vary across the Senate, however.

“We applaud the Senate offices that presently formally prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and we strongly urge those offices that do not yet include such language in their internal office policy documents to swiftly adopt these provisions to ensure a safe and respectful workplace,” the GLASS Caucus steering committee stated in the letter.

The OCWR does not track or review individual office policies, so data on exactly how many offices specifically do not ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is limited.

In February, the House Administration Committee adopted a resolution providing guidelines for offices to create their mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.

The panel released a model policy that lawmakers can use to create their own. It includes a statement of commitment that “all employees, interns, detailees, and fellows work in an environment free from discrimination, harassment, or intimidation on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, gender stereotyping, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age (40 or over), disability, military status, genetic information, or any basis prohibited by the Congressional Accountability Act or House Rules.”

House offices are required to have an anti-discrimination policy, but it does not need to align with the model issued by the panel.

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