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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Solmonese: Progress on gay rights leaves politicians in the dust

By Joe Solmonese
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Joe Solmonese is president of the Human Rights Campaign. With more than 600,000 members nationwide, the Human Rights Campaign is the nation's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights organization.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thanks to private sector employers, our nation hit a milestone this year in its march toward equality.

While protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans are stalled in Congress, corporate America continues to surge ahead. This isn't a Democratic or a Republican issue. It's an issue of basic fairness and good business.

For the first time, more than half of all Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner health insurance benefits to their employees, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's annual "State of the Workplace" report. This survey also found that 86 percent of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies and 10 times the number of Fortune companies cover gender identity today compared to 2001.

The private sector continues to be far ahead of the political debate. While elected officials continue to dwell on the "politics" of equal protections and rights, business leaders are encouraging fairness for their employees.

Just 25 years ago, these workplace policies didn't exist or were so rare that even the most progressive employer would not offer them. But more and more, Americans are accepting the fact that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are not just a statistic -- we are members of your family, your friends, your neighbors and your co-workers.

The 2000 Census found that same-sex couples live in more than 99 percent of counties in the United States, meaning just about every workplace has an employee -- or prospective employee -- who could benefit from domestic partner coverage.

Even our nation's most prestigious educational institutions are on board with providing equal rights for domestic partners. Among America's colleges and universities, 92 percent of the 25 top national four-year colleges provide domestic partner health coverage, according to our survey.

America's workplaces and schools are a microcosm of the country. They are places where people from different walks of life -- all religions, races, income levels, sexual orientations and gender identities -- are thrown together and told to make it work. They're doing just that and these policies and benefits are helping employers and employees succeed.

We have also seen wins in anti-discrimination and benefits policies at the state and local levels. Our survey found that seven states prohibit discrimination in private sector employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity -- California, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Washington, plus the District of Columbia. Ten additional states ban workplace discrimination based exclusively on sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, many political leaders are far behind business leaders in promoting and implementing fair and equitable policies for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Sadly, we see some politicians attacking our families and exploiting anti-gay prejudice for political purposes -- which results in fueling that prejudice and dividing our country.

In early June, GLBT families were targets of the Federal Marriage Amendment, an attempt to write discrimination into our nation's Constitution. These elected officials have turned their backs on the principles upon which this country was founded.

But America is a "can do" nation and has come a long way in its embracement of fair and equal treatment for GLBT families. And it has happened not because of some radical gay agenda, which our opponents say is our secret plan to take over. It has happened because of a measured approach of bringing people together on the basis of our common values and goals.

But I would be lying if I said that we don't have an agenda -- we do, and this is it:

1. A good job, where workers are respected for the work they do, are treated fairly and offered equal benefits

2. A safe home. So that we and our families can live in a community without fear of hate crimes and persecution

3. Fair and quality health care so that we have the ability to take care of our loved ones

4. And the right to be in a committed and legally recognized relationship that includes the same legal protections and rights offered to every other American -- no more, and no less.

And that, my friends, is not a radical gay agenda -- it's the American dream.

As an American I am proud of the gains being made in our country by the private sector, educational institutions, state and local government. History will mark these years as the time when our nation's business leaders decided to live up to America's promise -- and allow for real liberty and justice for all.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.

Your responses asked readers for their thoughts on Joe Solmonese's commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.

Thank You!!! Your comments are truly what the far right needs to hear. We are in it for the same equal rights, not more and not less, as any other American citizen. If we have to pay the same taxes, we can have the same rights.
Larry, Raleigh, North Carolina

I couldn't disagree more with the author's viewpoint in this commentary. Society has an obligation to promote the traditional, God-instituted family of a man and a woman united in marriage, primarily because children have the right to a mother and father and the unique strengths that each lend to their family unit. The author makes it sound as if anyone who is against domestic partner benefits is an anti-gay bigot, when the truth is that most people who oppose business' tacit endorsement of living together outside of marriage feel that these benefits should also be withheld from heterosexual couples who live outside of the marriage arrangement.
Leo Duren, Waco, Texas

What a thoughtful, well-articulated and fair commentary on the need for America to see gay issues for what they really are all about -- fairness and equality under the law. Gay people are everywhere, and they make up the fabric of this society just like any other group. But unlike most groups, they endure de facto segregation and denial of basic rights. I am glad to see the corporate world taking the lead in ensuring that gay people are recognized, and if necessary, protected.
Patrick Martin, Seattle, Washington

Rather than a commentary on how far ahead of the Congress the business world is, it is really a statement indicating how powerful the litigation practices (and the threat there of) the homosexual movement has become.
Joel Hibbs, Page, Arizona

I think this is an excellent commentary. It is well-written and to the point. I live in a state where there is open and blatant discrimination against many groups of people, whether based on race, ethnicity, income, religion or sexual orientation, it is all found in South Carolina. However, there has been some forward movement. I think this commentary sends a clear statement that this is not a request for special rights, it is a request for equal rights. And that is what America and democracy should stand for and to what we should be committed.
David Parker, Columbia, South Carolina

I think it's sad that the gay community has been successful in using intimidation to silence critics and force acceptance of what is an essentially a deviant sexual behavior. Bravo to those politicians who continue to fight the good fight in standing up to the militant gay rights advocates. Gays have been successful in stifling debate by labeling anyone who disagrees with them as homophobes and other derogatory names. Business did not willingly recognize "gay rights" (a silly idea) from some sense of moral obligation but rather out of fear of economic retaliation if they don't capitulate.
Andy Andress, Henderson, Nevada

As an employer and an American, I found Joe Solmonese's summary of the private sector's recognition of the rights of gay people among the most cogent articles I've seen written on this topic. Joe points out that, as is usually the case, the people are way ahead of our politicians in embracing fairness and equality in the workplace.
David Hitt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Gay is not a right. It is sin.
Stanley Swanson, Yuma, Arizona

I moved from Atlanta to Chicago in October. It is refreshing to find a city and state where the battle over gay rights is almost non-existent. Although they can't marry as we do, it is still a wonderful thing that friends and family do not have to hide in the shadows and they receive equal benefits from employers. Living in Atlanta, and of course the south, and coming from California, I have to say I was angered, and well, I don't know how to put it into words the hatred and prejudice I watch against the LGBT community.
Kat Fitzgerald, Chicago, Illinois

Commentary like this just points up how far these groups are out of the mainstream. There is a reason the political spectrum has "turned their back" on this issue: It doesn't get votes outside a narrow segment of society, and/or geography.
Duane, San Antonio, Texas

Joe Solmonese says business leaders are far ahead of politicians when it comes to gay rights.



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