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TransActive — What Else is New? — Two

| Sep 21, 2009
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For better or worse—sadly, often for the worse—history tends to repeat itself. This has proven especially true with the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), originally introduced in 1994. The transgender community has always been excluded from its protection, either from the beginning or as an unspoken bargaining chip. On June 24, 2009, Rep. Barney Frank introduced H.R. 3017 to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Once again we gird ourselves for a social and legislative battle.

The fight for transgender rights can often be discouraging. In June of 1997 I wrote a letter entitled “What Else is New?” to the editor of the San Francisco Bay Times, protesting the latest version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) because the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had endorsed a bill that pointedly excluded protections for transgender people. As I observed in that letter and in numerous other letters and articles I’ve published before and since then, “we transgenders are second-class citizens in the LGBT community. We had to fight to get that ‘T’ included. And while our issue is one of gender identification rather than sexual orientation, we’re still queer to the mainstream and subject to the same discrimination.”

How many times must a girl repeat herself before she is heard?

Trans people (and LGBs who understand) argue that by including “gender identity” and “gender expression” the law would protect not only the transgender community but also gay men and women who might be described as effeminate and butch, respectively. But back in the 1990s, the straight-acting, semi-closeted “Log Cabin” Republican types had the audacity to suggest to drag queens they not be so flamboyant during public events like pride parades because of how it might reflect on the mainstream-looking gays. In other words, if you admitted your shame by not being who you were in public, then you’d be worthy of “respect.” In the 1994 and 1997 ENDA fights, many gay and bisexual people stood in support of trans inclusion, and the editorial and Letters pages of the LGBT weeklies smoldered with controversy. However, legislators eventually decided there was nowhere near enough support so they dropped it.

In the meantime the rift between the LGB and T grew, understandably so. The HRC’s exclusion of transgender people was seen as a direct slap in the face of transgender patrons who’d led the 1969 riot against police harassment at the Stonewall Inn, an uprising that marked the genesis of the LGBT rights movement. As a result many transgender people expressed deep mistrust of the gay community and distanced themselves from the LGBT label. However many of us recognized the value of diversity and potential strength of an alliance, so we sought to help rebuild a coalition shaken by what many saw as calculating, callous exclusion.

One of the chief arguments the HRC leadership made against trans inclusion back in 1997 was the importance of an “incremental” approach to rights. Essentially this strategy sought to secure rights for the larger and less mysterious (and more straight-looking) group of gay members of the LGBT community and then later “come back” for trans rights. Many of us viewed askance this approach, concerned that once gay rights were safe there’d be less interest and certainly less urgency to follow up on trans rights. This worry was proven out in New York State after the 2002 Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, known as “SONDA,” was passed with the exact same promises to the trans community: “we’ll get to you next.” Seven years later the transgender version of SONDA still has not gone anywhere.

Then, in 2004, the HRC surprised many by announcing a new policy that it would support only “a fully inclusive version of ENDA.” In other words, transgender people would no longer be left out in the cold. The HRC began making this announcement with great fanfare at every fundraiser, and it made that promise at transgender events, especially well-attended conferences. Starting in 2004 donations to the HRC increased by unprecedented numbers. Believing the HRC’s commitment to full inclusion, transgender activist and leader Donna Rose agreed to sit on the HRC board, the only transwoman ever to have done so. Countless transgender people, this author included, began making substantial donations to the HRC in the belief it would live up to its 2004 promise.

In April of 2007, ENDA was reintroduced in the House as H.R. 2015, a fully trans-inclusive bill. Many in the trans community began to believe we might actually go the distance, at least in terms of not being dropped from the bill as a bargaining chip. On September 14th, two weeks before its stunning reversal, HRC president Joe Solomonese stood before the Southern Comfort conference to reassure our community, “What I would say is that we try to walk a thin line in terms of keeping everything in play and making sure that we move forward, but always being clear that we absolutely do not support – and in fact oppose – any legislation that is not absolutely inclusive, and we have sent that message loud and clear to the Hill.”

View the video of
Solomonese at
Southern Comfort
here.

Solomonese’s pronouncement was a comforting one. If the HRC were reserving even the possibility of throwing the transgender community under the bus and enact a federal version of SONDA instead of an inclusive one, why would it make such unequivocal public statements? Perhaps those who worried about betrayal, as I did, were being needlessly paranoid.

As it turned out, our concerns were well founded. Ten days after Solomonese’s pledge, openly gay congressman Barney Frank introduced two versions of ENDA intended to supercede the April bill: H.R. 3685 (Sexual Orientation only) and H.R. 3686 (Gender Identity only). The very next day the HRC issued a press release expressing dismay at the non-inclusive bills yet also signaling its intent to go along with whatever Frank and the House leadership put forth. Using self-serving phrases that attempted to lay responsibility at Congress’ feet, the HRC’s dictum reneged on the three-year promise to oppose a non-inclusive ENDA.

Much to her credit, Donna Rose refused to play token transwoman any longer and resigned from the HRC board. Furthermore, 350 LGBT organizations and numerous LGBT newspapers, such as the old and respected San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, thoroughly denounced the HRC’s betrayal and urged the House to pass a fully inclusive ENDA. Ignoring all of the protests from the LGBT community they ostensibly intended protect, the House of Representatives moved forward and passed H.R. 3685 (the “Barney bill”). However with no companion Senate bill, ENDA died a quiet death in the 110th Congress. Essentially, the HRC had just sold out the transgender community and our supporters for nothing.

The consequences of this betrayal were far-reaching, the most calamitous of which was the renewed rift it caused in the sometimes-tenuous alliance between the trans community and the GLB demographic. Despite some very high profile names, like Mike Signorile and Matt Foreman, and large organizations, like GLAAD and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now just “The Task Force”), coming down firmly on the side of trans inclusion, distrust grew. Transphobic rants from outspoken gay men like Chris Crain and John Aravosis made matters worse. By the time H.R. 3685 had passed in November, years of coalition building by inclusion-minded LGBT activists had been weakened. However, the greatest damage was to the HRC’s credibility.

According to Donna Rose’s blog in December 2007, the HRC planned a project named “Win-Back.” This campaign was intended to repair some that credibility so hamhandedly squandered in a pyrrhic HRC “victory” that ultimately secured nobody’s rights, weakened bridges painstakingly built over decades and perhaps permanently damaged the HRC’s ability to be any kind of legitimate representative of a truly equal LGBT coalition. Continuing its string of maladroit blunders, the HRC courted former Florida city manager Susan Stanton as a possible replacement for Donna Rose, a tactic that received immediate pushback from the trans community.

Very publicly fired from her longtime job as the city manager of Largo, Florida for the sin of transitioning—and generating a media firestorm—Stanton would seem the perfect poster girl for ENDA. However, with less than a year into transition at the time, she hadn’t faced the years of bigotry that most LGBT people have. Further she admitted she knew little about our community. While her inexperience and ignorance may have been overlooked, Stanton immediately alienated the trans community by blaming us for our exclusion from ENDA and our failure to educate the public. She later expanded her comments on a blog at republicoft.com, accusing our community of “celebrating” our “collective victimization.” Not long after that, mention of her as a potential token trannie for the HRC tapered off to nothing.

Now here it is nearly two years later and ENDA 2009 has been introduced in both the House (H.R. 3017) and Senate (S. 1584). I spoke with Donna Rose who is now the practice manager for Dr. Christine McGinn in eastern Pennsylvania. While Donna is still politically active, particularly as a member of the advisory committee to Out & Equal, she is less politically engaged after her disillusionment of 2007. Nonetheless she is cautiously optimistic that the changes to the political landscape since Autumn of 2007 is a cause for hope.

“Barack Obama is the biggest change of all,” Donna said, alluding to the threat of a Presidential veto that will not be the certainty to ENDA that it was during the Bush reign. She hopes the HRC and the gay community at large will begin to understand that while repealing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and securing the right to marry is a cornerstone issue for most gay people, the right to work and thus be able to afford the costs of transition is key for most trans people. “ENDA is our DOMA,” Rose stated. Helping those who don’t understand how crucial the right to employment is to the transgender community may help gain additional support for an inclusive ENDA.

“ENDA is symbolic that we are all in this together,” is the message Donna would like the entire LGBT community to receive. There is much overlap between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. By leaving out one group puts any others at risk.

While Ms. Rose does see some value in organized, leader-driven activism such as the HRC, she believes it is often far too willing to compromise on TG rights. For her resigning from the HRC was as much a protest of the betrayal as it was about retaining her self-respect instead of a lofty position on the board of an organization she no longer trusts. “I will always be a transwoman first,” she said, “and I would always choose my integrity” [over a position].

Donna sees more of a future in grassroots activism such as the individual efforts over Proposition 8 in California, which proved far more effective than the bungled organized attempt to educate undecided voters. Donna believes large, donor-driven organizations like the HRC are more prone to being beholden to the whims of their largest donors. In the case of the HRC, that demographic is mostly older, wealthy and conservative gay men who may not see or want to see the value of inclusion.

The other highly-respected transsexual activist who quit the HRC in protest was FTM International founder Jamison Green, who’d served on the HRC Business Council along with Donna Rose. This is the group in charge of developing the Corporate Equality Index (CEI), an in-depth analysis and rating of large U.S. employers and their policies and practices pertinent to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees, consumers and investors.

Mr. Green believes ENDA stands a good chance of passing this time, however he cautions it won’t solve all our problems. “There’s a strong chance there could be lawsuits to challenge it, and it may have to be shored up with additional regulations,” he explained, “but at least those won’t have to go through the legislative process. Litigation, if it happens, won’t be pretty. But all of this will give us a chance to be visible as a community and to continue the hard work we already have been doing to make the world safe for trans people.”

Jamison stressed these efforts have been and will continue to be long-term efforts, as is any civil rights struggle, and we have to be ready to continue the fight. Given all we’ve learned, especially over the last two years, it’s clear that when we do rely on organized activism to lobby politicians, our best chance is to speak for ourselves through organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) rather than organizations who’ve proven indifferent and unreliable to our community.

However there is no substitute for directly reaching out to your legislators. As ENDA 2009 moves through the House and the Senate, it is vital to reach out to our legislators and stress the importance of a fully-inclusive ENDA. The websites below provide a quick and easy way to obtain contact information for your legislators. You may be surprised how good you feel after taking action to stand up for yourself and your community. The more we take charge of the struggle for our own rights, the less likely we are to be at the mercy of the political process.

Taking Action

Near the top of each Congressional homepage is a search box to find your elected officials. While the contact email forms for the Senators and Representatives may be an easier way to make contact, a phone call is much more effective in making an impact. When you call tell your Representative you’re calling to support H.R. 3017 and tell your Senators you support S. 1584. Consider supporting NCTE as well.

http://www.house.gov/

http://www.senate.gov/

http://www.nctequality.org/

Christine Beatty is a transsexual author whose work has been seen in Transgender Tapestry, Spectator, TransSisters and Chrysalis Quarterly over the last eighteen years. In 1993 she published her own book of short stories and poetry, Misery Loves Company and she is currently marketing her new autobiography. Her transgender activism work stretches back to the early 1990s, and in 2000 she was distinguished as Transwoman of the Year by the Los Angeles Transgender Task Force. She helped organized the 2003 Transgender Day of Remembrance in Los Angeles, and in 2004 appeared in a Calpernia Addams’ And Andrea James’ all-transgender production of The Vagina Monologues. Formerly from San Francisco, where she co-founded the rock group Glamazon in 1994, she now resides in Los Angeles. Her personal web page is at http://www.glamazon.net.


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About the Author ()

Christine Beatty is a familiar name to TGForum readers. In 2010 she wrote the TransActive column here, and she was featured in the Perpetual Change column back in 2001 as part of the rock duo Glamazon. Along with her musical endeavors, she is also a TG activist, an author and a poet. She has recently published "Misery Loves Company" and has had articles appear in such publications as Chrysalis Quarterly, Transgender Tapestry, Spectator, and TransSisters.

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  1. ronnierho ronnierho says:

    While the HRC, and many individual members of the G & L community can be criticized for failure to include us, there should be some criticism reserved for the T as well.

    Few of us can be described as politically active. (Myself included.) So many of us are either caught up in the, shall we say, recreational aspects of transgenderism, or we’re too afraid to get involved.

    A quick e-mail to one’s Senator or Representative isn’t going to “out” anyone. The government doesn’t have squads dispatched to arrest anyone suspected of being TG. Sharing one’s thoughts in a place like TGForum, (it’s a forum, a place to discuss ideas!) would be a good start on the road toward more activity.

    We all need to realize that things aren’t going to get any better unless we make ourselves more visible. That includes participation in the political process on a wider scale, and getting out of the closet and into public, on grass roots level. The more people see us, gay or straight, the more they’re going to get used to us, and they’ll become less uncomfortable with our existence.

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