Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Witnessing History: Vivian Taylor Recalls Watching President Sign Anti-Discrimination Order

President Barack Obama
PHOTO CREDIT: Susan Russell
On Monday, July 21, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the Equal Employment Opportunity rules set out by several of his predecessors.  It covers federal employees and employees working for third-party organizations under federal contracts.  Integrity's Executive Director, Vivian Taylor, was in attendance because she was among a number of prominent Episcopalians working for LGBT equality who signed an open letter urging the President not to include a clause which would grant exemption from the order to those claiming their religious conscience prevented them from complying.  She was joined at the White House by the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, retired bishop of New Hampshire, and the Rev. Canon Susan Russell, associate pastor at All Saints: Pasadena and former president of Integrity.

What was the first thing that went through your head when you heard you would witness the President signing this Executive Order?

The first thing that I thought about was, "Thank God! I get to be present for this huge, important moment, which will affects 20% of the American workforce."  I was honored to be a witness to this act, which recognized the value of millions of American workers.

I'm reminded of a verse from the Epistle of St. James (Ch. 5: Vs. 11)  which has always been a favorite piece of scripture for me.  "Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful."  I'm very grateful for this order, which calls for equal treatment of all workers whose employers receive funds from the federal government.

What was it like being in the White House?

This wasn't my first visit, but I've found that time always goes by very quickly.  Justice work can often feel extremely lonely, and it is heartening to be among a crowd of people, be they secular or people of faith, who are being recognized or are there witnessing the fruits of their labor, as took place today.

Some self-described progressive Christians cautioned the President about passing this order without giving religious groups an "out".  Can you talk about why you and 99 other faith leaders feel differently?

While it is always important to respect people's beliefs, it is also crucial not to legitimize any biases they may hold toward a particular group, in this case LGBT people.  We've recently seen attempts to create legislation to do exactly that in the private sector, so we felt it was important to make sure the President's order did make room for that kind of discrimination.  Integrity's local organizers recently helped defeat such a bill in Oregon, and our bishops in Kansas spoke out against a similar effort, which was also defeated.  Even/especially at a time when we're making marked progress, we must remain vigilant to any effort to enshrine bias into the law.

Some federal employees say the executive order passed in 1998, which added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination protection, aren't consistently enforced.  Do you think things will be different now?

Absolutely.  Not only is the issue something that is much better understood by Americans than even a few years ago, It also clarifies the previous regulations and refocuses our attention on  them, so I have reason to feel confident.

Describe your favorite moment from today.

Vivian Taylor & Mia Macy
My favorite moment was meeting and befriending Mia Macy, a transwoman and a fellow veteran, who saw firsthand that the existing statutes did not actually protect us.  After she left active duty, she began her gender transition while working as a federal contractor.  In 2013, the Department of Justice ruled that the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms acted illegally by passing her over for a position for which she was qualified, after learning she was transgender. The unemployment rate for trans people is about twice that of the general population, so it was a privilege to spend time with the woman whose case helped the President realize we couldn't wait for Congress to pass legislation to protect them.

Do you think most Episcopalians would agree with Integrity's presence today, as a church group?  What could those of us who see this as a strong step forward do to help those Christians who are concerned about what they describe as the government restricting their ability to act on their own beliefs.

I think the majority of the Episcopalians I have met in my travels this past year would celebrate today's ruling.  It's worth noting that at least 2/3 of our dioceses have elected to bless same-gender relationships in some form. There are still areas of the country, however, where we are "not there yet" particularly in our efforts to bridge the urban-rural divide.  We are in talks with a number of our partner organizations about a concentrated effort to equip more local organizers to witness our mission goals in these areas.  More on that soon!

The Right Rev. Gene Robinson, Vivian Taylor, the Rev. Canon Susan Russell

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