Thursday, January 17, 2008

ENDA: Divide and Conquer?

I have put off writing about the ENDA debate for several reasons, the primary one being that I am frustrated by much of the debate and commentary surrounding the legislation that is occurring within the LGBT community. Rather than uniting all non-heterosexuals and allies, we have let the existing transphobia outside of our community divide us.

For those not entirely familiar with the issue, I will offer a brief recap. Long story short: The US House of Represenatives introduced a federal law that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. One version of the bill prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And another version of the bill prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation only. The second version of the bill (the "non-inclusive" one) was created in anticipation of an eventual rejection of a non-discrimination bill that included protections for transgender persons. The US House passed this version of ENDA.

That Rep. Barney Frank (who is openly gay), created a "non-inclusive" version of ENDA created much controversy within the LGBT community.

The Wikipedia entry on ENDA sums it up well:

"An important part of the controversy is whether it is better to move forward to pass a bill now that protects the majority of GLBT people, and to try to enact a bill on gender identity protection in the future, or whether it is better to move forward with an inclusive bill and to use it to educate members of Congress and their constituents, even though the bill may not pass."

Here is some of the commentary surrounding the issue...

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said:

"[W]ith no consultation with the community, members of Congress announced that they had decided to rush a new version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that does not include gender identity to a vote in the House of Representatives.... This would not only deny protections to transgender people, but also fail to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual people who do not conform to other people’s expectations (such as “effeminate” men and “masculine” women)."

PFLAG said,

"As a member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, we will only support the original version of ENDA that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity. We oppose any version that does not have protections for all the members of our families- gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender."

The Human Rights Campaign, who supported a "non-inclusive" ENDA:

"While HRC was disappointed that HR 3685 did not include protections for transgender Americans, it believes the successful passage of Congressman Frank’s bill is a step forward for all Americans, and that it paves the way for additional progress to outlaw workplace discrimination based on gender identity."

Advocate Rebecca Juro says,

"No trans-inclusive ENDA, even with a Democrat in the White House. The rights of the poor and disenfrancised minorities sold out once again by Congressional Democrats on the altar of political convenience, this time two years in advance. They're not going to bother to even try to do the right thing by gender-variant Americans anymore."

Lambda Legal says,

"It simply is wrong for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals to seek protections for themselves and leave transgender people in the dust."

I can admit that both sides of this controversy have valid points. It wasn't fair to remove gender identity from the scope of protection. But at the same time, I don't think that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people should not have protection just because transgender persons don't. There, I said it. And that being said, I do think that transgender persons should be protected. It infuriates me that they're not. But unfortunately, in our society, equality sometimes comes in incremental steps. Steps that are too slow for many of us.

Which is why Rep. Frank, a sponsor of both bills, was in an unenviable no-win situation. By opposing or supporting an "inclusive" ENDA, he was bound to anger and offend many. He chose one of two valid options. While hundreds of LGBT organizations came out in opposition to a "non-inclusive" ENDA, in a great show of community solidarity, various open letters to Rep. Barney Frank, a powerful part of the LGBT community, isolate and scapegoat him (and HRC) for the controversy.

Isn't it true, however, that the real blame for the situation lies on those opposed to protecting transgender persons? It isn't Frank and HRC who want to leave transgender persons unprotected- it's conservatives and bigots who do. Rep. Frank and company are left trying to work pragmatically within a society where anti-gay bigotry, false propaganda, and riling of the masses, passes for "argument" and "action alert!"

We know this. Although the attempts at shaming Rep. Frank and HRC persist. (Disclaimer: I have no particular allegiance or affiliation to Frank and am not a member of HRC).

I think this controversy speaks to a larger concern and issue within the LGBT community: that what passes for the mainstream "LGBT community" is not really as inclusive as it believes it is. It speaks to the feelings of transgender persons that the "T" on LGBT is always an afterthought (much like the "B" is often invisible). It alludes to the fact that persons of color often feel disconnected from and voiceless in large LGBT organizations. It hints at the fact that poor and low-income members of the community cannot attend "equality for all" galas at $400 a pop (after which, we're all left asking "Well, where's our equality?").

Equality, as I said earlier, is a sometimes slow process in a democratic society where the masses are regularly mis-informed. But in our quest to achieve equality, we must not forget who our real opponents are as we struggle to deal with the less visible discrimination in our own community. Most of all, we cannot let the bigotry against our entire LGBT community force us to divide and conquer ourselves.

It's not fair to leave transgender persons out of ENDA. Yet, in our struggles and mistakes, we cannot allow this debate to be framed as "LGB's versus T's," when in reality, it's all of us versus bigotry.

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