Saturday, September 29, 2007

The ENDA Debacle

Hundreds of calls to the show on Friday, and, among those who got through, people were largely dispirited, many downright angry, about the decision by the House Democratic leadership, supported by Barney Frank, to remove transgendered people from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The calls, from all over the U.S., were running 10 to 1 against removing it, though I brought on many of those who agreed with Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership so that we'd have a balanced discussion.

I'll be writing more on this, including the politics around it and the actions of gay groups, but let me first say that it's a difficult position to defend and a huge mistake to remove gender identity from the bill. Those who've argued that it's "pragmatic" or part of "incremental" gains are making all the wrong comparisons, and I think they know it. They say, for example, that this is equivalent to accepting, where possible, civil unions for now over marriage: Even though we believe marriage is the goal we herald civil union gains as an interim measure. But that doesn't wash: Whether it's marriage or civil unions it's still for all of us and not just some of us. (Or did I miss the part where some genius said, Let's pass civil unions for lesbians first and come back to the gay men later, since lesbians might be less threatening than gay men?) Incrementalism does not mean cutting out whole groups of people.

Another comparison I've seen from those who support dropping gender identity from the bill is that this action is similar to the supposedly pragmatic activists during the black civil rights movement who understood that they needed to start small and grow -- they started with employment, and then moved on to housing and public accommodations in later years. That, again, is a disingenuous comparison. First off, we have already made those concessions: The original gay rights bill of 1974 was a sweeping bill that included housing and public accommodations. But more to the point, African-Americans did not say, Hey, let's put forth a bill to protect all the light-skinned blacks -- those who can pass and are less threatening to whites -- and we'll come back to the blackest of the black later. And make no mistake: the trannies are the queerest of the queer; they are the ones who need protections more than anyone else.

Regarding all the high-minded pledges from various people who say we will come back for the transgendered and make sure we add them later: We have seen an unfortunate history of leaving people behind within this movement, I'm sorry to remind you. Soon after the onset of the HIV drug cocktail, for example, many middle class gay white men went back to their lives (including, among many, having unprotected sex, and fetishizing it on "bareback" sites) while HIV ravages other communities in this country and much of the rest of the planet. The political will within the gay community in America to help those other communities has all but died. (Oh, and do I also need to point out that the promise to come back for the trannies was made in New York when its gay rights bill was passed? That was five years ago, and they're still waiting.)

I honestly don't understand what the rush is on ENDA at this point -- and yes, I've now read many different takes on it, including that of Barney Frank, who I respect a great deal and don't disagree with lightly. Through the hard work of activists over many years, 20 states, the District of Columbia and 140 cities and counties -- among them the most populous states of California and New York, which also disproportionately contain large GLBT populations -- have laws banning discrimination against gays and lesbians. The Fortune 500 has so greatly outpaced the federal government, with over 90% of Fortune 500 companies having gay-inclusive anti-discrimination policies, that ENDA's immediate impact on the rest of the country, in terms of providing relief, if passed and signed by the president (doubtful), surely would not be nearly as significant as some have claimed in their arguments for dropping the transgendered. And judging from the calls to my radio show, from people in Texas and Tennessee and other places where there are no statewide protections, I believe many if not most gays and lesbians would rather make sure it includes all of us and not just some of us. (Pam Spaulding, who lives in North Carolina, makes this point herself). While the immediate relief from ENDA's passage wouldn't be as impactful for GLBs nationally at this point as it once might have been, it certainly would be very impactful for the Ts: Not nearly as many companies have policies on gender identity and several states that protect gays don't protect the transgendered, including, as mentioned, New York State.

ENDA's greatest impact for gays and lesbians would be as a starting point to broader legislation: banning discrimination in housing, public accommodations and elsewhere; changing our education system, teaching gay history in public schools and standing up against intolerance; marriage rights in states across the country. But even more far reaching, the effect of pro-gay and pro-trans civil rights laws, just as the passage of laws banning racial discrimination, is to instill tolerance in the culture and in society over a period of several generations. Even with laws in place it's still often difficult to stop discrimination ( Jena, LA is a case in point), but the laws are more about changing attitudes than anything else, so that people, on their own, voluntarily, do not discriminate as time goes on. Governments and the force of law, over decades, do change the culture and change people's thinking. They help to change how people raise their children, moving entire generations in a direction away from hate.

With all of that in mind, it's important to realize that there really are no short cuts to those admittedly lofty but achievable goals. You only undercut yourself by pulling the rug out from under certain groups just because you want to show that you can have a "win" of some kind, any kind.