Don't get angry, get organized.
That's an old activist slogan to remind us that in a fight we do better to get strategic than to simply lash out. Are you upset to hear that gender identy and expression has been stripped from our national ENDA bill? Well, now is not the time to perform the autopsy on how a fully inclusive bill came unraveled. The patient is still alive and we have work to do.
History shows us that we can win.
Years ago I heard Tim McFeeley, then Executive Director of HRC, tell the story of how the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was almost halted by the disability community leaders themselves.
In 1990, the landmark measure had passed the House and the Senate with bipartisan majorities and was on its way to then President George H. W. Bush who had already firmly committed to signing the bill. But disability community leaders, many of whom had spent decades fighting for this historic legislation were not happy. In the final moments, both chambers had suddenly amended the ADA to specifically exclude HIV positive waiters, cooks and anyone designated a "food-handler".
With passage utterly assured, Rep. Joe Barton and the National Restaurant Association might have thought that the last minute exclusion of HIV positive workers would be no big deal. Perhaps they thought exploiting the public's fear of AIDS and ignorance about how HIV is transmitted, would be treated as a minor issue effecting a tiny population. They were wrong.
Before the bill reached Bush's desk, Patrisha Wright, the leader of the coalition fighting for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, asked Tim to represent HRC in a delegation of disability leaders scheduled to meet the next morning at the White House. The only purpose of the meeting was to demand that the food handler amendment be removed from the bill.
They gathered in the Roosevelt Room at the White House with C. Boyden Gray, Counsel to the President and Tim described his amazement as disability community leaders unwaveringly demanded that the bill cover people with HIV equally.
"One of those leaders, Bob Williams, a man afflicted with cerebral palsy and who later became Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities in the Clinton Administration, using a spell board because he could not speak, communicated the message that the disability community would rather have no ADA than an ADA that excluded people with HIV.
"I think no one would have blamed these ADA leaders if they had accepted the food handlers' exclusion. But that's not what happened. I will never forget their principled stand in solidarity with this small segment of HIV+ workers. So much was at stake for them. The White House was not responsive to their position, but we were able to reverse the House and Senate votes by stripping the amendment out in conference. As a result, HIV positive workers who handle food are covered by the ADA to this day."
Fast forward to June 1998. Texas lawmakers are considering new state hate crimes legislation in the wake of the horrific, racist murder of James Byrd. Despite political pragmatists insisting that the bill could pass easily if sexual orientation were jettisoned, the Byrd family would have none of it. Matthew Shepherd's had been murdered within months of Byrd, placing a spotlight on the epidemic of anti-gay hate violence. The Byrd family would not allow the message that gay lives were held more cheaply to be delivered by supporting bill that would have ignored his brutal death.
George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, vetoed the measure but it became law in 2001 with sexual orientation and race included.
So here we are at a moment of truth for our community and everyone is watching to see if we will hold the line or broker away some portion of our community for the chance at achieving a "partial victory".
Would we accept a bill that protected gay men but not lesbians? Would we find it reasonable to say "Don't worry. We'll come back later for you? Absolutely not. So, the question has finally been called. Will we behave as an LGBT movement with every portion of our community intrinsically and irrevocably linked no matter what? Are we in this together?
Some say laws don't change hearts and minds but we know they do. Every law and local ordinance we pass has both a legal and symbolic value. Even when enforcement mechanisms are toothless and underfunded, they send a message about how our communities believe everyone ought to be treated. We pursue them not because we think they will punish every bigot who discriminates but because we know they will set a community standard in which discrimination is not a given, no longer legally or socially acceptable.
It is also true that stripping "gender identity/expression:" from the bill sends a symbolic message as well. And it is a dangerous one for a community already marginalized and vulnerable. The language is intrinsic to the viability of the bill and the integrity of our community. To jettison the language from the bill is to succumb to our most fearful impulses and embolden those who oppose equality for all of us.
This isn't just a question of Federal law. It is sending a message to every local and state legislature considering similar legislation. Now,the laws we pass at the local and state level routinely include gender identity and expression. Every leader in this community knows that these protections are urgently needed. We cannot pretend that we don't know this and continue to call ourselves leaders. Who do we think we are going to turn to for protection if we cannot even advocate resolutely for our right - the right of each gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender person - to live without violence, harassment and discrimination? We cannot feign solidarity while signaling simultaneously that we will settle for something less. This is our moment of truth and we cannot blink.
Like every minority group that has fought for basic rights, we will never win by the votes of our community alone. What we do have is the moral authority to call out to America to live up its ideals. We have the ability to call on our leaders and our fellow citizens to treat everyone equally under the law, to reject bigotry, prejudice and the discrimination and violence they breed.
To cut out, to throw out protection regardless of gender identity/expression is to cede that moral authority. It is to confirm for our political enemies that a dividing line within the human family is acceptable--the haggling about who is worthy and who is not is all that remains.
This is not the time to do the bigots' work for them. To make excuses. To call fear pragmatism.
Here is what we need:
Every organization and every individual who shares a commitment to equality to speak in a single voice with the clarity of disability activist Bob Williams: We are in this together. We will leave no one behind.