H. Alexander Robinson

Making Sense of the ENDA Controversy

Filed By H. Alexander Robinson | October 20, 2007 3:58 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: bisexual, civil rights, ENDA, HRC, LCCR, lesbian, LGBT, NBJC, Rosa Parks, Slavery, Suffrage, transgender

For the past few weeks we have been held captive by the ENDA debate over whether or not it is currently possible to pass federal legislation which extends workplace protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans.

In the optimistic early days of the current Democratic congress I don’t think anyone would have predicted this scenario—at least not the present turn of events.

Quick Recap

In late September to the surprise and dismay of many transgender and lesbian and gay activist and organizations openly gay Representative Barney Frank, who is often spoken of by allies and foes alike as one of the most intellectually adroit and legislatively savvy members of Congress, announced that the Leaderships plan to move H.R. 3685 a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which does not include employment protections from discrimination based on gender identity to a vote in the House of Representatives.

Not surprisingly the most privileged under the LGBT tent backed up by their friends in the mainstream media and gay blogosphere proffered the notion that getting something, especially something for which they had toiled for decades, was better than getting nothing, an either or choice that has been roundly rejected by virtually all of the transgender leadership.

The move was almost universally panned as premature, unwise and a host of other adjectives that we won’t repeat here. There was however a counter voice as well. First and foremost, Congressman Frank himself went in to high gear to defend his move and the rationale behind it: reasonable tactical and strategic move based on a solid counting of the votes, etcetera.

The Human Rights Campaign put the “sausage making” that is the Washington legislative process on display with their position of only supporting an “inclusive ENDA” but “not opposing” H.R. 3685 if and when it came to a vote on the House floor.

Several LGBT activist and organizations which had only up until this time played a marginal or supporting role in federal lobbying joined with the Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality to quickly create United ENDA which called for the support of H.R. 2015 and the rejection of H.R. 3685.

After what many members of Congress called an unprecedented response from the grassroots, campaign donors and volunteers, and transgender people themselves, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (who had refused to sign on as a co-sponsor to H.R. 3685) announced that she would introduce an amendment on the floor of the House to add transgender protections to the non-inclusive bill.

The bill is expected to reach the House floor next week.

The Civil Rights Bus and Transgender Community

I found it ironic, even curious, that many of my LGBT colleagues chose bus analogies to describe what they felt was happening to transgender Americans and their allies.

Transgender communities are being asked to “get to the back of the bus", "shoved off the bus", "kicked to the curb from the bus", "thrown under the bus", or "being run over by the bus.”

By evoking the image of the bus - and for many invoking the image of Rosa Parks - this clearly demonstrates that once again the LGBT community continues to define itself (if not replicate its play book) by the racial civil rights struggle of the 1960’s.

Like most illusions to struggles past there are lessons to be learned. More importantly, we need an accurate and honest analysis of our present day challenges within the current political and social context. Otherwise using language that conjures up images from such a turbulent period in our nation’s history is like a tenor hitting a C when you meant to hit a C sharp.

History Lesson

In defense of his tactical call Congressman Frank pointed out that black men had the vote before women. Thus his logic and reasoning that settling for protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual people now and working for protections of transgender Americans later was consistent with our nation’s civil rights history (as long and tortured as that has been).

The early women's rights movement was built on the principles and experiences of other efforts to promote social justice and to improve the human condition. Chief among these were the anti-slavery Abolition movement. In 1869 the women's rights movement split into two factions as a result of disagreements over the Fourteenth and soon-to-be-passed Fifteenth Amendments.

A year later the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchises black men. The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) refused to work for its ratification, arguing, instead, that it be "scrapped" in favor of a Sixteenth Amendment providing universal suffrage. Frederick Douglass broke with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over NWSA's position. It took until 1920 for the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote to be ratified.

A letter to the Editor of the Washington Blade challenged one of my early statements in support of an inclusive ENDA. In my commentary I recalled that the civil rights movement was for all of the community. Citing the objections of woman suffrages of that era she asked if we would have been better off if black men would have had to wait for women to get the vote. The answer is none of us know.

Though black men had won the right to vote it took years of activism, the Brown decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to bring about the demise of the entangling web of legislation that bound blacks to second class citizenship.

C Sharp

There is strength in numbers. No matter how you count it, your voice can be heard louder and stronger when you have more people on board in support of your efforts. However, we must be singing from the same hymnal. Otherwise our message is discordant noise unlikely to win many followers. In other words, the LGBT community which is already splintered into four letters can no longer afford any additional public schisms especially when they telegraph to our opponent that we are willing to jettison our brothers, sisters, and cousins who are also in the struggle with us.

We must unite in the struggle for equality together. And although we may never agree fully on all the issues at hand, we must instead agree that we will protect and uphold each other as an LGBT family.

There is strength in knowledge. In my opinion most of the controversy surrounding the recent ENDA debate has a lot to do with the lack of information, the use of misinformation, and the need to clearly articulate the lives of transgender individuals, their place in LGBT communities, and our shared history and cultural evolution.

Every other oppressed community has had to speak up, speak out and enunciate who they were and what they felt. Evidence from a variety of printed sources published during the mid to late 1800’s - advice manuals, poetry and literature, sermons, and medical texts - reveal that Americans, in general, held highly stereotypical notions about women's and men's roles in society.

Blacks were enslaved and continue to this day to be deemed by some as less intelligent, and being gay was deemed as a mental disorder. The presiding majority always seems to have at the ready evidence that the oppression minority deserves their inferior status and the ensuing discrimination based on their inherent inferiority.

Each group had to stand up, speak up, fight back, and clearly tell their lives and their individual stories as human beings. It is now time that we open the door even further to allow the transgender community the same opportunity that was afforded our foreparents. Sadly, many LGBs still cannot comprehend the definition or the life of a T. So let us use the ENDA exercise as an opportunity to learn, appreciate and to value the diversity of the transgender community.

There is strength in allies. No community is an island existing perfectly all to itself. Instead we are interdependent, we need each other in order to get anything done or accomplished in life. The LGBT community has been extremely fortunate to have cultivated many allies who have assisted us in our struggle through their legislative votes, financial contributions, and their simple acts of kindness and love.

One of the most significant of these organizations is the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). This clearly proves that however much the LGBT community can come together we need the help and assistance from other civil rights institutions as well to succeed.

LCCR has played a major role with Congress on ENDA. Just as was the case with the earlier ENDA effort, the LCCR coalition is essential to our success. As would be expected, a great deal of attention has been focused on the role of HRC but we should not dismiss or underplay the influence of the nation’s leading civil rights coalition now and in the future.

We must always sit at the table. As far as we know, when the discussion and the decision to strip trangenders from ENDA was held none of the key local, state, and federal LGBT leaders and experts were at the table.

We continue to push to pass the Baldwin amendment but as of now it feels like we have been outmaneuvered at every pass. If key LGBT leaders were at the negotiating table in greater masses, I believe that the ENDA flare up that has occurred could have been minimized if not eliminated all together. But through rapidly formed grassroots support and the vast reaches of the internet we have been able to make a difference.

So as we continue to observe what happens with the remaining chapters of the ENDA saga, let us continue to remember both these lessons and new lessons to come in the evolution of the LGBT civil rights struggle.

Least anyone feel tried remember that in 1776 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, who was attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, asking that he and the other men - who were at work on the Declaration of Independence - "Remember the Ladies." John responds with humor. The Declaration's wording specifies that "all men are created equal."

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There are an whole heap of issues to be considered.

From my viewpoint, the strongest emotional issue is the sense of betrayal.

Analogies with Blacks vs Womens civil rights fall down. It wasn't the NAAWACP - National Association for the Advancement of Women And Coloured People, after all. Had honesty prevailed, and Ts been excluded from GLB at the start, then there would have been less hurt and more trust.

Many Gays, and not a few Transgendered people, wonder whether it should be GLBT. Transgendered people have very little in common with Gays, though many are GLB just as many Blacks are women. The friction has been made worse by cases where GLB rights legislation made things worse for the Transgendered, and of course the backlash against same-sex marriage caught a lot of existing Transgendered marriages in the crossfire. Overall, it's arguable that Transgendered people have gained nothing from being part of the GLBT conglomerate. Great Good has been done, no question, but the GLB majority is unaware of the price paid by TG people due to GLB activism.

In view of Stonewall etc it's impossible to separate the two concerns though. Moreover, from a TG viewpoint, GLB activism would have happened anyway. TG's would have paid the price, regardless. This way, they at least get some of the benefits.

Except that argument falls flat when TG's are rejected whenever they become inconvenient. Moreover, those who betray them have to find an excuse so they don't feel bad about doing it. Hence the attempts to airbrush history, to accuse TGs of being selfish, of constantly whining, and being Straight - "not really Queer".

There has been a screw-up, a political misjudgement. Barney Frank thought he had the votes, didn't bother to check, told everyone all was well, then when he came up short, started looking for excuses (as all politicians do). Had he done his homework, then perhaps a campaign over months might have sorted the situation. We'll never know. Things like this happen, mistakes are made, and sometimes pragmatism has to rule.

Except... there's an issue of trust. Had no promises been made, had no assurances been given, that would be one thing. But they were. Now we know that promises mean nothing, they're empty words.

So in order to pass a symbolic bill - for no corresponding Senate legislation exists - this trust has been shattered. But it gets worse: the argument against a trans-inclusive bill is that a vote against it cannot easily be changed later, when times are better. True enough. But by putting on the table either a trans-only bill, or an amendment, the same principle holds. A vote against trans-rights now (and an amendment is 100% certain to be voted down) can't be easily changed later. So why is the DNC doing this? Because if they didn't, they'd look even worse than they do now. And if TG people suffer, well, they were always not just expendable, they were disposable.

In light of this, TG people have to consider their options.

Thanks for sharing some of the history of other civil rights movements, Alexander. You've really helped to put some things in perspective. I appreciate it.

And thanks also for supporting full inclusion.