Legislation recently proposed on the state and federal levels has sparked a conversation in the local college community about preventing workplace discrimination based on sexual preference and gender identity.

The Citadel hosted on Wednesday about 20 human resources representatives from the College of Charleston, The Citadel and Trident Technical College for a presentation about the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in the workplace and what new legislation could mean for employers.

Emma Bennett-Williams, the chief equal employment opportunity officer with The Citadel, helped organize the event to offer human resources professionals a better understanding of the issue in the Lowcountry.

“I don’t think this is a conversation we have very much in South Carolina, and I think this is a good time to get people talking about it,” she said.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act was passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this month, the first time such a measure has passed in either chamber of Congress. Though it’s unlikely it will be introduced to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, it may bolster the possibility that the LGBT community will gain federal protections against workplace discrimination.

Similar legislation, the Workplace Fairness Bill, was introduced in the S.C. House of Representatives in April. Employers in South Carolina and in 34 other states have the right to terminate or refuse employment based on an individual’s sexual preference or gender identity.

S.C. Equality, a non-profit organization that advocates for equal civil and human rights for the LGBT community in the Palmetto State, was instrumental in putting the issue on state lawmakers’ agenda, and has been rallying support for the bill across the state since May.

Ryan Wilson, executive director of the organization, spoke to the gathering at the Citadel about the Workplace Fairness Act and its significance to the LGBT workforce and their families.

“I get calls from folks who fear every day that if people found out about their same-sex relationship or their gender identity, they’d lose their jobs,” he said.

Though legislation hasn’t forced employers’ hands, many large companies in South Carolina, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and BlueCross BlueShield, have implemented policies to protect LGBT workers from discrimination or hiring biases, Wilson said.

If companies such as Boeing are seeing better productivity when they include LGBT employees in their anti-discrimination policies, Wilson said, “imagine what that says to other businesses who want to come to South Carolina.”

Representatives from the human resources departments at the College of Charleston and the Citadel spoke up, saying their schools have similar policies that include protections for homosexual and transgender employees.

Molly Cherry, an employment lawyer in Charleston, also gave a presentation to the group to discuss how employers can handle and avoid discrimination based on sexual preference or gender identity.

“Regardless of the passage of ENDA, there are laws to be aware of,” she said.

For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination based on gender, has also served as a protection for transgender individuals in some cases, Cherry said.

“The important thing is to train your workforce,” she said. “Ensure that employees know the avenues to address their complaints.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail