So here’s the story, if you haven’t heard.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a landmark civil rights bill; GLBT groups have been waiting eagerly for and working diligently for its passage for years. With the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, it looked like it might have a chance — especially with the passage of the recent hate crimes bill that added sexual orientation and gender identity to existing federal hate crimes legislation.
But on Thursday, Sept. 27 — same day the hate crimes bill passed the Senate — the Democratic leadership in the House decided to remove gender identity from ENDA, leaving the bill only providing protection against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. That leaves transgender people, gender-queer, and others — including possibly lesbians, gays, and straights who don’t conform to an employer’s idea of gender standards — out of this important employment bill.
Why? Because according to an informal “whip count” poll of the Democratic representatives, there aren’t enough Democrats who would support ENDA if it includes gender identity, but if they remove the transgender protections, a watered-down ENDA would pass.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. and the only openly gay man in Congress, is leading the charge — or retreat — by introducing two bills to replace the original, transgender-inclusive H.R. 2015. One with only sexual orientation protection — which Frank hopes will pass — and one with gender identity that’s set up to fail.
This announcement shocked the GLBT community; activist groups had been working for years to educate and lobby for a trans-inclusive ENDA. Starting in 1999, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force became the first national GLBT group to state they would only work on passing ENDA if it included protections for gender identity. (Of course, transgender people had been advocating for inclusion long before 1999!) Heavy lobbying in 2004 by transgender activists and allies persuaded other groups, including the influential Human Rights Campaign, to take a similar stand and only support an inclusive version of ENDA.
When ENDA was introduced in the current session of Congress in April of this year, it included gender identity for the first time, in a changed hailed by HRC, NGLTF, and other groups in the GLBT community as a positive step forward.
Now many of those groups feel that House Democrats are taking a step forward for gays, lesbians and bisexuals while kicking aside transgender people. Soon after the changes to ENDA were announced, a coalition of GLBT organizations came together reiterating their support for only a trans-inclusive ENDA and calling upon Congress to reject the version that doesn’t protect transgender employees.
One organization, however, was silent on the issue for days.
Less than two weeks earlier, HRC’s president Joe Solmonese had announced to transgender activists and supporters at the Southern Comfort Conference that “we absolutely do not support and in fact oppose any legislation that is not absolutely inclusive.” But when HRC finally weighed in on the removal of transgender protections from ENDA, they issued an Oct. 2 statement saying “we are not able to support, nor will we encourage Members of Congress to vote against, the newly introduced sexual orientation only bill.”
HRC’s refusal to oppose non-inclusive legislation infuriated many in the GLBT community, especially transgender members who felt as if they were being left behind.
The other side of that coin found many gays and lesbians feeling as if they were being asked to sacrifice their potential employment rights on behalf of transgender rights. “The 30-year fight for a federal gay civil rights law may fail because activists insist on including rights for transgendered people too,” asked an opinion piece by a gay man posted on the Salon.com Web site. “Has gay inclusiveness gone too far?”
To date, over 270 national, state, and local LGBT organizations — including southern Arizona’s Wingspan — have signed on with a letter posted on UnitedENDA.org asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to continue to work on “an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that protects everyone in our community, and to oppose any substitute legislation that leaves some of us behind.”