Equal-benefits laws should extend to transgender workers

Marchers with the transgender group TGI Justice assemble for the start of the 44th annual San Francisco Gay Pride parade last June.
Marchers with the transgender group TGI Justice assemble for the start of the 44th annual San Francisco Gay Pride parade last June. Associated Press file

Taxes are paid by everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, so those dollars should go only to groups that do not discriminate.

That is exactly the goal of Senate Bill 703, introduced by Sen. Mark Leno and sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California and Transgender Law Center. Expanding California’s existing equal-benefits law, this bill would prohibit the state from contracting with companies that do not provide equal benefits to their transgender employees.

For more than a decade, California has refused to contract with firms that discriminate in benefits offered to their employees in same-sex relationships. It is long past the time that California added transgender employees to its protections.

Equal-benefits laws originated in San Francisco, where 20 years ago, the city awarded a contract to the Salvation Army to host a holiday meal for people living with HIV/AIDS. Even though the San Francisco AIDS Foundation also bid on the contract, the Salvation Army prevailed because its bid was slightly lower. It got the contract even though it publicly supported laws that criminalized sex between members of the same gender and even though the contract included an anti-discrimination provision.

It was clear that we needed to ensure that taxpayer dollars didn’t go to entities that claimed they didn’t discriminate but whose policies were, in fact, discriminatory. At the time, I was chairman of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club’s Legislative Committee and as I discussed the idea with other club leaders, we quickly realized the potential impact of the legislation beyond the Salvation Army and San Francisco. The city bought vehicles for the police and fire departments, ran an international airport, leased land for cell towers, and contracted for goods and services with thousands of businesses around the country. This idea could be a game-changer.

The proposal, however, drew resistance from businesses and others who did not fully support LGBT equality. Some businesses claimed that their health insurer didn’t offer domestic partner coverage, others claimed that federal and state law pre-empted San Francisco from requiring equal benefits, right-wing organizations claimed it would increase the cost of city contracts and some groups – including the Salvation Army – threatened to stop providing services if it meant having to treat their gay employees equally.

But we overcame every obstacle. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce removed its opposition after meeting with advocates and elected officials and realizing the new law created a new marketplace for insurers. Insurers got on board for the same reason and began offering domestic partner insurance.

Taxpayers saved money as they no longer had to pay for emergency and other medical care for individuals who had previously been denied equal insurance by their partner’s employer. Employees, now eligible for benefits, came out about their sexual orientation at work and changed hearts and minds. And businesses across the nation started offering equal benefits. The leadership shown by one city helped to change the nation and the course of history for LGBT individuals.

After years of litigation that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the legislation was found valid and equal benefits were here to stay. San Francisco’s landmark law has been credited with transforming the workplace for LGBT individuals and providing millions of employees with benefits they had previously been denied.

In 2002, on the day I started as executive director of Equality California, I met with then-Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, chairwoman of the newly formed LGBT Caucus, and proposed that she introduce a statewide equal-benefits bill. She agreed, and in 2003 the bill passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Gray Davis despite fierce opposition. California became the first state to pass an equal-benefits law and a decade later remains the only state in the nation to have done so.

This year, we can again make California a leader in ending discrimination while maximizing tax dollars by passing SB 703 and expanding protections to transgender employees.

Geoff Kors is government policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.