The only two openly gay members of the United States Congress testified yesterday about new legislation to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people at work.

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Congressman Barney Frank appeared before the House Health, Employment, Labour and Pensions subcommittee and spoke in favour of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

The proposed legislation seeks to extend federal employment discrimination protections that are currently provided based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability, to sexual orientation and gender identity. It has bipartisan support.

“ENDA does not create special rights,” said Congresswoman Baldwin, a sponsor of the legislation.

“It simply affords to all Americans basic employment protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice.

“The purpose of ENDA is to ensure that hard-working Americans cannot be denied job opportunities, fired or otherwise be discriminated against just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“There is nothing more American than ensuring that people have equal job opportunities.”

This is the first time since 1994 that legislation that protects LGB people at work has been brought to the House, and for the first time trans people are to be protected as well.

“Because an individual was born one sex and presents him or herself to the world as another, or in a way that other people may think is inconsistent with how a man or a woman should present themselves, he or she can face many forms of discrimination,” explained Congresswoman Baldwin, adding that there is confusion about what gender identity means.

“ENDA contains language that makes it clear than an employer may establish and enforce reasonable and otherwise lawful dress and grooming standards for employees.

“But it also provides assurances that aspects of a person’s gender identity and gender expression cannot be the basis for workplace discrimination.

“ENDA ensures that an employer cannot fire an employee solely because she is a woman with a ‘masculine’ walk or a man with an ‘effeminate’ voice.”

Currently 17 US states have protections for LGB people; eight of those states extend that protection to trans people.

In 1996 similar legislation failed in the Senate by one vote.

87% of the top Fortune 500 companies in the US already provide protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The US military and religious organisations are excluded from the legislation, which also does not force employers to extend benefits to same-sex partners.