Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce National Dinner
Friday, November 18, 2011
Thank you, Catherine and George. Ever since I came to Washington, Catherine has been a trusted friend and ally. Whether she's making the case for a better immigration policy with La Raza or working on the NGLCC board to help LGBT entrepreneurs, Catherine is always in the trenches, fighting for equality and opportunity.
And George, thank you so much for honoring me with the Extra Mile Award. I love your airline, because when it comes to LGBT equality, you were the first out of the gate. You were the first airline to offer domestic partner benefits, the first to make sure transgender workers are included in your anti-discrimination policy and the first to add LGBT-certified businesses to your supply chain. So let me be the first Labor Secretary to say, "Thank you for taking your industry to new heights."
I've been thinking a lot about "firsts" as I prepared to talk with you tonight. I've spent the better part of two decades in public life fighting for LGBT equality. And I'll admit that sometimes it seems like progress happens way too slowly. I'm one of the most impatient people I know.
But think about all the "firsts" that this President and our administration have delivered. For the first time in American history, gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the United States military. For the first time, our laws affirm that you don't have to be straight to shoot straight. And now, when we defend America, we're finally defending the right of our soldiers to love openly without fear, without persecution and without shame.
For the first time, we've sent a message across this country that hate crimes will not be tolerated. That's because, we passed the first-ever federal civil rights legislation that includes the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity."
And we have a President who has used the bully pulpit to take on the bullies in our schools a President who says that hate is wrong and acceptance is right. Barack Obama is the first President to look into the camera and tell millions of LGBT and questioning youth not to give up, not to give in and to speak up if they are being bullied! Because they are special, we are here for them and it does get better. It's such a critical message, and I'm proud that my agency was one of the first to record an "It Gets Better" video. We all have an obligation to help our LGBT youth realize their potential.
For the first time, we've told our hospitals that if you want Medicare and Medicaid funds, you will not separate same-sex couples when they need each other the most. For the first time, we have released a national strategy for fighting HIV/AIDS, because this disease is treatable and preventable and we have a moral obligation to do both. For the first time, we have a President who says the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is discriminatory, runs counter to our laws and should be repealed.
It's a privilege to be here with our job creators tonight. I know how hard all of you work. In many ways, running the Department of Labor is like running a business. I'm the CEO of a $15 billion enterprise. We employ 17,000 workers in every state. My department runs one of the largest educational institutions in the world, called Job Corps, which trains our young people. And we're the second-largest enforcement agency in the federal system.
Just like you, we have to bring products to market. Just like you, we have to procure goods and services about $2 billion worth a year. Just like you, customer service and satisfaction are the most important measures of our success. And just like you, it's vital that we attract and retain the best people to make the business of government work.
So I know the value that LGBT workers bring to my enterprise. I employ your peers at every level of my agency, including senior management. And I know that sexual orientation and gender identity have absolutely no relation to one's ability to do the job. And that's why Congress should pass an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
I'm honored to be the first Latina Secretary of Labor, appointed to my post by our first African-American President. And I'm proud to be part of an administration that has accomplished so many "firsts" for the LGBT community. And I'm even prouder that my own agency has made historic progress.
Last year, I announced that the Family Medical Leave Act applies to loving families with two mothers or two fathers. This rule is so important because an estimated 2 million children are being raised in LGBT families today. My department's ruling means that LGBT workers get 12 weeks of legally protected leave to care for their child, even if they can't legally adopt. If you act like a parent, do the work of a parent and raise a child like a parent, then you are a parent, as far as the Department of Labor is concerned.
This July, for the first time, my department issued national data on benefits for same-sex domestic partners. We surveyed more than 15,000 workplaces to get a fuller picture of the progress we've made in securing benefits for LGBT families. We learned that 30 percent of non-federal workers have access to health care benefits for their same-sex partners. We also learned that half of state and local government workers can claim survivor benefits for an unmarried partner. We felt it was important to collect this data to arm NGLCC and other groups to go to Capitol Hill and make the case for domestic partner benefits.
Let me tell you about another first. In April, I issued an order to change my department's EEO policy to add gender identity as a protected category. I did that because it was the right thing to do, because no one should be denied a job or promotion because of their gender identity or how they choose to express it.
It's wrong that transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed. It's wrong that one in four has been fired because of their gender identity. At the Department of Labor, we believe in equality, and we're proud that we employ one of the President's openly transgender political appointees. His name is Dylan Orr, and he does incredible work in our Office of Disability Employment. He reports to work every day to an Assistant Secretary of Labor who happens to be Latina, happens to be a lesbian and happens to be blind.
The NGLCC and the Department of Labor are working hand in hand on disability issues. NGLCC is actually a founding partner in our new initiative called "Add Us In." People with disabilities CAN and WANT to work. Smart business leaders want to hire the best person for the job, regardless of disability status. In Connecticut and California, my department is working with the NGLCC to create job opportunities for LGBT workers who have a disability.
I want to give a shout-out to the Chamber's leaders, Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell, for their work on this initiative. Justin joined us at the Labor Department in June for a roundtable discussion on ways to integrate people with HIV/AIDS back into the workforce. Thanks to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage to those living with HIV/AIDS. As a result, many with HIV/AIDS will have access to the care they need. It means living longer and staying healthy longer. And it should mean staying in the workforce longer, too even for those who've been out of work for health reasons.
The American Jobs Act would make it illegal to discriminate against them for gaps in their employment. The NGLCC is helping us make the business case to encourage small companies to utilize their talents. For this, I think Chance and Justin deserve a round of applause.
Chance and Justin know something about "firsts," too. Last month, President Obama signed historic free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. On that very day, Chance and Justin were in Colombia meeting with LGBT business owners. They convened a group of executives from top multinational companies to talk about workplace equality. Next spring, I understand they will go back to Colombia on the first-ever government-sponsored trade mission. During that trip, they'll help launch the Colombian National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. I'm so proud of you guys. Next year, you will celebrate NGLCC's 10th anniversary knowing that you're making a difference on multiple hemispheres.
So let me close today by saying "thank you" to the NGLCC for everything you're doing to help lead our economy back. For helping to meet the President's goal of doubling American exports, for helping to put people back to work, for fostering innovation and for supporting LGBT entrepreneurs. NGLCC: By growing our small businesses, you're powering the engine of America's economic renewal. And for that, I stand here today to honor you.
Thank you for allowing me to share in this special night. Together, we've accomplished a lot of "firsts." And together, we'll keep working to make sure they're not the last. Keep up the great work. This country is counting on you. And for those who question our ability to change the world for LGBT people, let's give them our answer. And it's three words. Si se puede! Yes we can!