An end to ENDA?

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act didn’t just hit a roadblock. It got into a 10-car pile-up.

This week, Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi decided to split it into two separate bills, one covering sexual orientation, and the other gender identity. They figured, let’s take care of the Ls, Gs, and Bs now, and come back for the Ts later.

Why? Because while Republicans think LGBs are depraved, self-serving, sinful perverts trying to steal their children and destroy the American way of life, they really dislike the Ts. So, in order to appease the fears of people who like to use terms like “she-males,” our Democratic leadership has decided to cut loose the very people who are probably most in need of this legislation.

I have great respect for both Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi, but in this case, I think they are simply wrong.

I’ve spent the past couple of days talking about it. Michelangelo Signorile made some of the points I’ve been saying:

I’ll be writing more on this, including the politics around it and the actions of gay groups, but suffice it to say that I think 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?) Incremetalism 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 their 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.

Pam Spaulding had a great post that goes even deeper and really helped me think about not just ENDA, but politics more generally, and what she calls the purist/pragmatist split:

My two cents: trans inclusion should not be dropped from ENDA.

That said, I certainly understand that this position represents the “purist activism” point of view — the principle is that if one falls, we all fall. The pragmatic view is that incremental gains can and should be taken to move the civil rights bar forward. As Barney Frank’s office noted, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 failed to address voting (added in ’65) and housing (added in ’68).

I struggle with this split sometimes. I tend to fall on the purist side most of the time, so I frequently get questioned by friends–and by myself. The pragmatic side always seems so reasonable, so practical. It seems like the way more likely to get things done. The end of Pam’s post reminds us of why pragmatic attempts at compromise sometimes gain no more than the purist position, or even less:

The latter point brings me to a thought that immediately came to mind when I heard trans inclusion was in jeopardy. The concern of Pelosi and others that there would be a “bruising” debate on ENDA that focused on the “T” seems like a red herring. Of course it will be bruising. No matter when this came up for debate, the usual suspects — the professional anti-LGBT forces — would blast disinformation and bigotry non-stop. There would be high volume bleating and hysteria based on “she-males,” transvestism, drag queens, bathroom paranoia, etc.

Quite frankly, I feel like this needs to come out in debate on the House floor, and better that it does under the mantle of the Bush Administration and the legacy of a Republican run Congress, which has done everything to foment anti-LGBT sentiment for years. They should own this. The Democrats don’t have the juice to undo years of this BS in the short time that they have been in power.

ENDA will fail, no matter its configuration because George Bush and allies on the Hill have shamelessly obtained their power by cultivating political support on a base of fear, hate and ignorance. The bill might as well fail now, and hold up its defeat as the first step in reviving a commitment to unite, not divide, and to move the civil rights bar forward.

But it isn’t going to be pretty or painless.

If by some miracle the new gutted version of ENDA were to pass, it would truly be an empty victory. ENDA was supposed to be a triumph of the belief that people should not have to fear losing their jobs or suffering discrimination for being who they are. If the law only applies to some people and not others, it means that for no one.

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