National Commentary

Anything But Straight: A Drag On ENDA?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) have declared transgender people a drag on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). To ensure its passage, they have introduced a non-inclusive bill that would offer job protection only on the basis of sexual orientation – not gender identity. There is a separate employment bill for transgender people, but it has about as much chance of passing as Sen. Larry Craig becoming the ad pitchman for Charmin.

If we could ensure that transgender Americans would be included in a couple of years, the "pragmatic" approach would make sense. However, let's drop all pretenses and admit that when we talk of an "incremental" approach it is code for at least a fifteen-year increment of time. Furthermore, with campaign seasons getting excruciatingly long, it is always an Election Year – thus a permanent excuse to perpetually exclude transgender people.

It is also clear that a minority as small as the trans community will never have the political clout to go at it alone, nor will they have the funds to wage a credible fight in Congress unless Bill Gates wakes up tomorrow and decides to have a sex change. To put it bluntly, their only chance at legal protection is under the gay and lesbian banner. So, dropping an inclusive bill means under no uncertain terms that we have abandoned transgender people and told them to fend for themselves.

The real question the larger gay and lesbian population must answer is whether it is worth it to sacrifice our rights in the immediate future to support transgender equality? This is not an easy call to make, as some purists would suggest. By opposing ENDA in its current incarnation, we will leave thousands of families vulnerable, particularly in "red states."

To me, this is a deeply personal issue because I was fired from a television news-reporting job in Bangor, Maine in 1994. There is nothing more I would like to see than the passage of ENDA, to help people who are now in the situation I once faced. I understand better than most the social and economic consequences of having a career short-circuited because of sexual orientation, with no legal recourse. 

But, I also have the memory of working at the Human Rights Campaign's Pride booths each summer at a time when transgender people were excluded from ENDA. Inevitably they would confront us and I would dutifully defend our policy. The more I thought about it, however, the less I could justify my words and I could barely look them in the eyes. We were essentially saying, "stop piggybacking" on the gay rights movement. That is the same self-centered argument that right wing African Americans use today to justify exclusion of gay people from civil rights protections.   

The HRC staff and leadership came to the identical conclusion and thus supported a new trans-inclusive version of ENDA. How bittersweet it must be for HRC to finally get an opportunity to pass its signature piece of legislation, yet have the occasion marred. Contrary to what critics are now saying, HRC cares deeply about transgender people and does want them included.

Personally, I would not support the current ENDA bill because we simply owe too much to the trans community. Unable to hide, they have been in the forefront of the movement, often at great personal risk. They have sacrificed much for those of us who could "pass," so now it is time to return the favor, even if it means biting the bullet on ENDA.

Some people think transgender people are a hindrance to greater acceptance. My years in the movement have taught me that thugs believe we are all "faggots" and religious fanatics think we are all "sinners," regardless of whether we wear suits or skirts.

Furthermore, the right will portray any bill – gender inclusive or not – as allowing men with beards in dresses to demand jobs as elementary school teachers. Remember, lying is what the far right does best and any member of Congress who votes for equality in any form will be smeared. So, why not do what is right and defend transgender inclusion? 

What our community must do is tell Congress that it is morally unacceptable to dole out rights to only groups that poll well. Either a legislator believes in the principle of equal justice for all or they don't. As painful as it might be, we must reject a compromise that compromises our core values. The next time I come face-to-face with a transgender person, I want to be able to look them in the eyes and know I did the right thing.