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LGBT State Workers Gain Rights in Red and Purple States

Several new governors have signed anti-discrimination executive orders. So did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but his had no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signing a paper.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signing an executive order barring anti-LGBT bias in state employment decisions.
(AP/John Hanna)


  • The new Democratic and Republican governors of Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin signed executive orders to protect LGBT state workers from discrimination.
  • Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a similar anti-discrimination order that had no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • There are 31 states where people are not fully protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Laura Kelly made protection of LGBT rights one of her first orders of business as governor of Kansas. The day after she took office this month, Kelly signed an executive order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who work for or contract with the state from discrimination.

“As I have said numerous times before, discrimination of anyone has no place in Kansas and will not be tolerated in this administration,” Kelly said in her inaugural address.

A few days earlier, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers also used his first executive order to protect LGBT state employees. And the newly elected governors of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and Ohio, Mike DeWine, signed LGBT protections that renewed or expanded orders that had been issued by their outgoing predecessors.

Kelly, Evers and Whitmer are Democrats, while DeWine is a Republican.

"LGBTQ issues are becoming much less partisan," says Elliot Imse, communications director for the Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates. "If you look at the four states where governors recently signed these orders, these are not hyperliberal states. They are red and purple states."

Imse says the election of more openly LGBT politicians in these states was a prod toward action. Record numbers of LGBT state legislators were elected across the nation last year.

But not all new governors have taken similar action.

Ron DeSantis, Florida's new Republican governor, signed an order that protects people from discrimination in state employment and contracting on the basis of race, age, sex, religion, national origin or disability -- but not sexual orientation or gender identity.

"As governors across the country establish these critical protections for LGBTQ families, this order draws a stark contrast," said Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, a gay rights group, in a statement. “It’s hard to believe that Gov. DeSantis and his staff are not aware of the LGBTQ communities' call for these protections following the Pulse tragedy, and therefore it is hard to interpret this as anything less than a purposeful omission."


Pushback to LGBT Protections

Not everyone is applauding the anti-discrimination protections.

In Kansas, some legislators complained that Kelly overstepped her bounds by including contractors, thus imposing policy preferences on private employers. Such a move, they say, requires legislative action.

The state has a history of vacillating on the issue of LGBT rights, depending on who is in power. In 2007, Kansas Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius extended anti-discrimination protections to LGBT state employees. Her order was then rescinded by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in 2015. The back and forth -- and now back again -- in Kansas shows that executive orders can't be relied upon forever.

"Executive orders cannot replace the permanent step of codifying protections under state law, but they are an important way to help minimize the rampant discrimination that LGBTQ people too often face," says Masen Davis, CEO of Freedom for All Americans, an LGBT rights advocacy group.

There are 31 states where people are not fully protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to carry out its ban on transgender people serving in the military while the policy is being challenged in lower courts. The ruling reverses the last decade's momentum toward increased rights for LGBT people, most notably the Supreme Court's 2015 decision that legalized marriage for same-sex couples.

At the state level, though, that momentum is still going.

"By making LGBTQ rights a priority in their first executive actions," Davis says, "governors across the country are sending the message that they value treating all their constituents with basic dignity and respect."

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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