An 800-Pound Transgender Elephant Who Doesn’t Trust LGBT Congressmembers, Their Congressional Aides, And LGBT Civil Rights Organizations’ Policy Teams

Kerry Eleveld recently wrote a piece for Equality Matters — crossposted to Pam’s House Blend — entitled The False Choice: ENDA v. Marriage Equality. I read it, and had a visceral reaction when I read these paragraphs (no emphasis added):

[A]lthough I have asked a good number of questions about [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)] and its prospects for a vote, I still can’t tell you why it never happened. Meanwhile, I can recall with decent clarity nearly every twist and turn of the battle to pass “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) repeal. This is not due to a bias on my part, but is rather indicative of the fact that no one seemed willing to talk with any specificity about what was or wasn’t happening with ENDA.

And here is where our community’s analysis must begin — we need to have an honest conversation about our inability to discuss ENDA and transgender issues. Last year, when I asked people in our advocacy groups, staffers on the Hill, and lawmakers about the prospects for passing ENDA, I most commonly got no information or misinformation. As the bill continued to languish and the House committee vote was continually delayed, my questions were increasingly met with indignation and wholesale assurances that all was going according to plan. But ultimately, all I found was a brick wall when it came to identifying the hurdles.

I stopped reading the article when I read that, and just seethed.

My visceral reaction was this: I heard “It’s time to open up the discussion again as to whether gender identity should be part of ENDA” when I read the phrase “we need to have an honest conversation about our inability to discuss ENDA and transgender issues.” That’s my filter; that’s my problem.

But let me set the WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) Machine back to 2004 to discuss some background history on transgender people and ENDA — the reason I (and I assume many other transgender people) have that filter. Transgender community history on ENDA starts significantly earlier than that (see Monica Roberts’ Transgriot post Why The Transgender Community Hates HRC for more history than I’ll include here), but to keep the long story relatively short I’ll start there.

By August of 2004, pretty much every LGBT community civil rights organization had came out with a statement to the effect of “We won’t support any version of ENDA unless it includes gender identity language for transgender people.” Well, every organization except the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

On August 3, 2004, the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) release a press statement, entitled Transexual Menace, Others to Protest HRC, which began this way:

A handful of organizations will be demonstrating outside of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) at their Washington DC headquarters during its upcoming board meeting. Transsexual Menace is organizing the Unity Rally for Transgender Rights joined by other GLBT organizations to protest the HRC’s dubious efforts  on behalf of transgender inclusion in federal legislation. Members of groups such as the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC), Pride at Work (PAW) and Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG) will be

participating.

The demonstration will take place on Saturday, August 7, when the HRC boards convene to discuss whether to vote on supporting only transgender-inclusive federal legislation including the federal hate crime bill (LLEEA) and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

“In a climate where the GOP is using scare tactics to erase the GLBT people from gaining civil rights, we believe that for the largest GLBT organization in our country to be playing these kinds of political games is not only divisive to our community but unconscionable,” said Ethan St. Pierre, organizer of the Transsexual Menace Event. “HRC is the largest GLBT national organization and when they support non-inclusive language in what should be trans-inclusive legislation it sends a clear message to Congress that we [transgenders] don’t matter and that our lives mean nothing!”

The HRC knew the Transexual Menace and allies were coming, and on August 7, 2004, the Gay City News reported the following in their article HRC Embraces Transgender Rights; Board vote signals more inclusive Capitol Hill strategy:

[More below the fold.]

On August 7, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national lobby for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, reversed its prior stance and announced it would support the main piece of congressional legislation addressing the needs of LGBT Americans only if the bill included protections for transgender people. The legislation, known as the Employment and Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has lingered in Congress without significant consideration for years. Officials at the Washington-based HRC announced their policy change after meeting with several transgender leaders during an annual board meeting.

“The Human Rights Campaign adopts a policy that we will only support ENDA if it is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression,” a statement from HRC said.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who spoke at Saturday’s pivotal board meeting, immediately hailed the HRC board’s decision. “We are now one big community,” Keisling said.

“When members of Congress see HRC’s resolve on this, they will know transgender protections must be part of ENDA,” Keisling said. “This will also empower the victims of discrimination to come forward, and give us the chance to educate the public on transgender issues,” she added.

The HRC’s then legislative director Christopher Labonte stated the following:

This is definitely a sea change. We are now moving forward with a united front, and the LGBT community will no longer be fractured as a result of ENDA.

Then HRC executive director Cheryl Jacques made this statement:

Cheryl JacquesPassing ENDA without gender identity and expression is like passing a copyright law that covers books and television shows but doesn’t cover digital music or videos. But ENDA is about people’s lives, not MP3s or DVDs. That’s why it’s so important that we have the strongest and most comprehensive bill possible.

She also stated this:

In early August [2004], HRC’s Board of Directors took the historic step of adopting a policy that HRC would not support a version of ENDA that doesn’t include gender identity or expression.

This isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s the pragmatic thing to do. We’re supporting a modernized and comprehensive bill that gives full protection to all of our community.

Fast forward to the Southern Comfort Conference in September 14, 2007, and HRC executive director Joe Solmonese made the following comment (emphasis added):

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.

Apparently without the HRC Board’s approval, Joe Solmonese got ahead of where the HRC was at on ENDA: whereas the HRC’s official policy was that they would not support any version of ENDA that didn’t include gender identity, Joe Solmonese publicly stated that the HRC would oppose any version of ENDA that didn’t include gender identity.

Then on September 27, 2007, House Democrats removed transgender employment protections from the main ENDA bill. On October 1, 2007, the HRC released the following statement:

Last night, the Human Rights Campaign’s Board of Directors voted to reaffirm the 2004 policy supporting a fully inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Therefore, HRC will not support the newly introduced sexual orientation only bill. The board’s position articulates a process for continued dialogue with House leaders about strategies that have been put forth to, in the end, achieve passage of a fully inclusive ENDA.

“We are now faced with definitive Congressional action to move forward a version of the bill stripping gender identity. Though we support a fully inclusive ENDA, we acknowledge the legislative strategy put forth by Congressman Frank and the Democratic leadership to obtain a clear path towards an inclusive bill in the future,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “We look forward to working with them to accomplish the goal all of us share – ending workplace discrimination against the entire GLBT community.”

“Since 2004, HRC has had in place a policy that supports only a fully inclusive version of ENDA and the Board of Directors voted to reaffirm that position,” Solmonese continued. “Therefore, we are not able to support, nor will we encourage Members of Congress to vote against, the newly introduced sexual orientation only bill. And will continue working with our allies in Congress to support a comprehensive, legislative strategy to achieve passage of a fully inclusive ENDA as quickly as possible.”

But of course — as most LGBT activists no doubt remember — even that position changed. On November 06, 2007, the HRC put out a press release that stated the following it its text:

“Since 2004, HRC has had in place a policy that supports only a fully inclusive version of ENDA and the Board of Directors voted to reaffirm that position,” Solmonese [said]. “Therefore, we are not able to support, nor will we encourage Members of Congress to vote against, the newly introduced sexual orientation only bill.”

The Leadership Conference On Civil Rights (LCCR) — the nation’s oldest, and largest, and civil and human rights coalition, to which the HRC is a key member organization — released this statement at roughly the same point in time as the 2007 HRC press release on ENDA. The LCCR statement said this in part:

As civil rights organizations, however, we are no strangers to painful compromise in the quest for equal protection of the law for all Americans. From the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the almost-passed District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007, legislative progress in the area of civil and human rights has almost always been incremental in nature. With each significant step toward progress, the civil rights community has also faced difficult and sometimes even agonizing tradeoffs. We have always recognized, however, that each legislative breakthrough has paved the way for additional progress in the future. With respect to ENDA, we take the same view.

While we are greatly disappointed that the current version of ENDA is not fully inclusive, our sense of frustration in this case is directed at those who would clearly prefer to see no one from the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community protected at all. We know the decision to pursue a narrower strategy was a very difficult one, and we appreciate the steadfast efforts of our Congressional allies over the years to advance the rights of all Americans – even when they are forced at times to make progress that is measured by inches rather than yards.

As such, we urge you to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and to oppose any floor amendments or motions that would undermine its protections.

And as most of us know, the sexual orientation only version of ENDA passed the House in early 2008, but the Senate never took up the bill — so ENDA died. ENDA was never sent to President Bush’s desk for veto.

Fast-forwarding yet again — this time to late March of 2009 — the HRC released a one more statement regarding the ENDA — this time in reference to the last Congress:

HRC Board ENDA Policy

It’s the policy of HRC that the organization will only support an inclusive ENDA. In 2007 House leadership informed us that there were insufficient votes to pass an inclusive bill, so they decided to vote on a sexual orientation only bill. We made a one time exception to our policy in 2007 because we strongly believed that supporting this vote would do more to advance inclusive legislation. We will not support such a strategy again. We look forward to Congress sending President Obama a fully inclusive ENDA for his signature.

Let’s be honest. Not very many trans people believe that March 2009 statement — it reads like unadulterated spin.

And too, let’s be very clear here on substance: in comparison to the statements of other LGBT civil rights non-profits on ENDA, the HRC’s policy statement is designed to be more weakly worded. Other LGBT civil rights non-profits have stated they’d oppose ENDA without the inclusion of gender identity or expression language while the HRC’s language of not support means that the HRC will theoretically be neutral on any ENDA that doesn’t include gender identity and expression language — not opposed to any version of ENDA that isn’t fully inclusive.

The return to the HRC’s 2004-to-2007 ENDA policy, verses their 2007/2008 ENDA policy, certainly was an improvement. But, going back to the 2004-to-2007 policy really isn’t exactly a great place to start honest dialog about ENDA and transgender issues. And, their big presence on LGBT issues is touted on their About Us webpage:

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.

And too, there is the matter of the HRC’s flawed scorecard for the 110th Congress.

It matters that the organization is still sending the message that issues regarding gender identity and gender expression are not equal to issues to that of sexual orientation. And since the HRC is still a sizable presence in the beltway backrooms where discussions with legislators and legislative staff on ENDA occurs…well, for many reasons, including their transgender fail on ENDA 2007/2008, means that the vast majority of transgender community activists don’t trust the HRC to be an honest broker for transgender people and issues. In fact, many consider the HRC — and especially Joe Solmonese — to be a liar.

And beyond the HRC, the transgender community still stings over John Aravosis’ commentary on AmericaBlog regarding ENDA 2007/2008. Aravosis compared LGBT community organizations that opposed removal of gender identity from ENDA 2007/2008 to religious right bigots in his piece House Committee Passes ENDA, 27-21:

This is a historic vote (this is the GLB ENDA, the one we actually have the votes for, the one we’ve been working on for 30 years). All Republican amendments were defeated. Four Dems sided with Pat Robertson and the men at the Concerned Women for America and voted no (including Kucinich, Holt, Clark and Sanchez – ostensibly because they feel we should hold 25 million gays and lesbians hostage until America is ready to pass civil rights laws for somewhere between tens of thousands and a few hundred thousand transgender people), and three Rs voted yes (Castle, Biggert and Platts).

That wasn’t an single, isolated comment. For example, another statement that repeated this comparison is found in JUST IN: Pelosi agrees to hold vote on trans-inclusive ENDA when it has the votes, will move ahead with GLB ENDA next week:

What remains to be seen is whether the NGLTF and its allies will join James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Lou Sheldon and Pat Robertson in trying to kill ENDA.

Here we have a gay blogger with readership in the tens of thousands who argued — in loaded language — against transgender inclusion in ENDA.

And too, it’s not as if our gay representatives in Congress have been kind to transgender people. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) hasn’t engendered the trust of transgender community regarding ENDA over the years either.

Image: Integrated Male and Female Restroom Sign; Link: Pam's House Blend tag: 'Bathroom'Rep. Frank made this telephone statement for that Gay City News article referenced above prior to the HRC announcing its 2004 change of policy:

[ENDA] will never pass with trans-inclusive language while the Republicans are in control of Congress. They always scare people with stories about people with penises going into women’s showers.”

Peter LaBarbera of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality quoted Barney Frank as stating this in his piece Homosexual-Transgender Alliance Tested as ‘Trans’-Inclusive ENDA Falters on Capitol Hill:

There are workplace situations — communal showers, for example — when the demands of the transgender community fly in the face of conventional norms and therefore would not pass in any Congress. I’ve talked with transgender activists and what they want — and what we will be forced to defend — is for people with penises who identify as women to be able to shower with other women.

Rep. Frank gave people on the religious right, such as Peter LaBarbera, quotables regarding transgender people and public restrooms/public showers.

Just Out - Frankly Speaking Page 1In the Just Out article Frankly Speaking (subtitled U.S. Rep. Barney Frank to trans community: Get your own train, May 2, 2008), Representative Barney Frank spoke about ENDA 2007/2008. One of his “stir the pot” comments from the article was:

Part of the problem, I have to say, is this: I’ve never seen a worse job of lobbying done by the transgender community. They seem to think that all they had to do was to get the gay and lesbian community to say “OK.” I think they thought that this was a train, and that they were a car on the train. I said to them, “You’ve got to work this, you’ve got to lobby people.” They did a terrible job of lobbying, and so we didn’t have the votes.

I’ve talked to my transgender peers and other activists over during 2007 and 2008, and no activist had ever reported that Rep. Frank gave any such warning to him, her, or hir — the only ones I’m aware of who sounded any alarm to the transgender community regarding ENDA/hate crimes legislation was the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC). In May of 2007 — during their NTAC Transgender Lobby Days of May, 2007 — in some of the congressional offices had lobbied in they heard rumors that had apparently been floating around the Beltway since April, 2007: NTAC heard that gender identity and expression was going to be dropped from the main ENDA/hate crimes legislation bill . NTAC in turn mentioned that possibility to some transgender community e-groups that same month.

Rep. Frank also stated in that Just Out piece:

I understand the problem of having [transgender protections] put in the bill and taking it out. It would have been better not to have put it in the bill in the first place and to have two separate bills in the beginning…. Unfortunately, people in the trans community and their allies didn’t want to accept reality.

And…

Was it a mistake not to push for gay rights in the ’50s and ’60s? No, it just hadn’t occurred to people. Movements take time. There was not a lot of self-awareness of people being transgender in the ’80s and ’90s. You can’t artificially create these things; they come up. The transgender community organized and came forward, but it’s only been less than 10 years.

Let me make a note here: transgender people were in large part thrown out of the gay liberation movement in the early seventies by people of Rep. Frank’s generation. From History Professor Susan Stryker’s Know Your Transgender History:

1973 was a watershed year. Sentiments against transgender people participating in gay and feminist work reached a fever pitch. Sylvia Rivera was physically prevented from speaking at the Stonewall commemoration in New York. Beth Elliot, a lesbian transsexual woman who had once been vice president of the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis lesbian organization in San Francisco was ejected from the West Coast Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles, by vehemently anti-transgender feminist Robin Morgan, who divided the crowd on the transgender issue in much the same way that the issue is threatening to divide the LGBT community today. With the war in Viet Nam winding down for the United States, the androgynous hippy style of the “Freakin’ Fag Revolution” was replaced with the new macho of the “clone look.” With the successful removal of homosexuality as a psychopathology list in the psychiatric bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, gender-normative gay and lesbian people could say that they were healthy and transgender people were sick. And repression continued from the outside, too. Police planted narcotics in the office of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, framed them, and sent some of them to jail. It was a perfect storm, in which many progressive-minded people, self-righteously thinking they were being so advanced in their condemnation of transgender people, unwittingly marched in lock step with truly reactionary social forces.

Thirty years of advancing gay and feminist causes through solidarity with conservative definitions of gender and by trashing transgender people is what produces the seeming paradox of the right-wing Christian hate groups like Americans For Truth About Homosexuality actually quoting Barney Frank’s phobic attitudes about transgender people on the front page of their website.

You can watch highlights of Rep. Frank’s comments about transgender inclusion in his October 10, 2007 ENDA/Transgender Press Conference:

With his commentary on transgender people and ENDA made in May of 2008 and earlier, it was literally no surprise to me to read statements by Rep. Frank in Chris Geidner’s Metro Weekly piece Employment bill started strong, but is barely breathing at the close of the 111th Congress. Rep. Frank put the burden of the unpassed ENDA 2009/2010 bill on the backs of transgender people:

…Frank had a message for LGBT advocates, saying, ”In the interim what the community needs to do is educate on the transgender issue.”

The point was echoed by the Democratic leadership aide, who said ”there has not been the work done by the community in the Senate” to ensure the passage of an inclusive ENDA.

As Frank said, ”I would point out to you that they still have not been able to get transgender protections in liberal places. If you can’t do it in Massachusetts, New York and Maryland, it doesn’t get easier when you add in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah.”

Frankly, after so many promises by Rep. Frank and other congressmembers in 2009 and 2010 about how ENDA was going to be marked up “soon,” at the end of the month, next February (2010) — well, you can read about the long history of broken promises on ENDA here. It didn’t appear to be an issue that would definitely kill the bill until the postmortem at the end of the 111th Congress., unless you consider this comment from Rep. Frank found in a January 13, 2010 piece in The Advocate:

“There continues to be concerns on the part of many members about the transgender issue, particularly about the question of places where people are without their clothes — showers, bathrooms, locker rooms, etc.,” said Frank. “We still have this issue about what happens when people who present themselves as one sex but have the physical characteristics of the other sex, what rules govern what happens in locker rooms, showers, etc.”

*Sigh.* Always the bathrooms; always the locker room showers.

And by the way, Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) hasn’t exactly been a superior ENDA friend to transgender people either. Just after GetEQUAL protested last April 21st in an attempt to highlight that ENDA 2009/2010 hadn’t as yet been marked up in the House Health Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Polis gave the GetEQUAL protesters — including GetEQUAL executive director Robin McGehee — a false choice argument. In the hallway outside the room where the committee was meeting, Rep. Polis told the protesters if they wanted ENDA marked up then it would be without gender identity protections — and then asked if that’s what the GetEQUAL activists wanted.

Which leads me back to the quote from by Kerry Eleveld I highlighted at the beginning of this piece:

[A]lthough I have asked a good number of questions about [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)] and its prospects for a vote, I still can’t tell you why it never happened. Meanwhile, I can recall with decent clarity nearly every twist and turn of the battle to pass “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) repeal. This is not due to a bias on my part, but is rather indicative of the fact that no one seemed willing to talk with any specificity about what was or wasn’t happening with ENDA.

And here is where our community’s analysis must begin — we need to have an honest conversation about our inability to discuss ENDA and transgender issues. Last year, when I asked people in our advocacy groups, staffers on the Hill, and lawmakers about the prospects for passing ENDA, I most commonly got no information or misinformation. As the bill continued to languish and the House committee vote was continually delayed, my questions were increasingly met with indignation and wholesale assurances that all was going according to plan. But ultimately, all I found was a brick wall when it came to identifying the hurdles.

Transgender people don’t trust that an honest conversation about ENDA can occur with the people who work on policy that are currently in place in congressional offices and LGBT civil rights non-profits. The HRC’s executive director Joe Solmonese has zero credibility with transgender community activists after ENDA 2007/2008, but he’s still the HRC’s executive director. Rep. Barney Frank is the lead sponsor for ENDA, and he has a history of saying problematic things about transgender community members, and legislation that includes transgender community members.

And because of the issues with the leaders who work on LGBT policy within the beltway, many in transgender community feel gender identity and gender expression are not treated as equal issues — The “T” in “LGBT” is perceived by a majority of transgender community members as being a small “t” to congressmembers, congressmember office staffers and the people who work on policy at LGBT civil rights non-profits. Transgender community members perceive they’ve been lied to, and perceive they’ve been frequently scapegoated by lesbian and gay community members in positions of power.

The feeling of many in transgender community is that this perceived lying and this perceived scapegoating is an ongoing issue. If transgender community leaders were to agree to an honest conversation beginning on ENDA and transgender people, I know I’m not alone in feeling that we transgender community members are again going to hear that question posed regarding whether or not transgender people should even being included in ENDA. Many of us in transgender community are tired of having that discussion about whether or not we should be included in ENDA over and over again — especially when we know, after ENDA 2007/2008, that it’s not tenable for congress or LGBT civil rights non-profits to drop gender identity from ENDA.

Transgender people just want our friends to actually be our friends.

My reaction was to those paragraphs written by Kerry Eleveld were visceral. I heard “It’s time to open up the discussion again as to whether gender identity should be part of ENDA” when I read the phrase “we need to have an honest conversation about our inability to discuss ENDA and transgender issues” in her piece. That’s my filter; that’s my problem.

And, I’m sorry lesbian and gay people seem to all get painted with a broad brush. Transgender community members often feel so angry about those who in LGBT community who treat them badly that lashing out at almost all non-transgender people in LGBT community is an almost instinctive response. That almost instinctive anger is often directed at any in community who are even moderately insensitive — or those who unintentionally use inappropriate language to describe us. In other words, we don’t always hit the right target for our anger with our anger.

Transgender community members have many, many lesbian and gay intra-community allies, and I actually knew beforehand that Kerry Eleveld was one of them. But unfortunately, sometimes anger at broader LGBT community is that reflexive response because of the behavior of players like Solmonese, Aravosis, and Frank — and more sad still, that reflexive anger directed at many LGB people in community is often justified.

Just look at the comment threads for Joe.My.God, Towleroad, and GLAAD whenever any of these post on transgender people or on transgender issues. Transgender people know about those ongoing thread comments on those sites, and these feed destructive transgender narratives about “gay white cisgender men.”

The reflexive anger expressed by transgender people no doubt will impact any honest conversation LGBT community will engage in regarding transgender people and ENDA.

I emailed back and forth a bit with Pam about this, and she wrote this response back:

I think what [Kerry Eleveld] is doing is stating the obvious – LGBs simply have done what often happens with race – if you can’t comfortably discuss it for fear of defensive backlash, the larger community will ignore, dodge, avoid or be silent.

Yup — I couldn’t agree more.

So all that said, community history between the lesbian and gay subcommunity members of the LGBT community and the transgender subcommunity members of the LGBT community is a significant reason for why honest conversation on ENDA and transgender people is going to be difficult.

But, lesbian and gay people in LGBT community are going to need to have a discussion about community history with transgender people if we want to move forward together on ENDA. It’s going to be an extremely difficult conversation to have when there is such credibility related and scapegoating issues that have yet to be adequately addressed; when there is so much heat and anger that transgender people feel about how they’ve been treated within LGBT community.

I have some suggestions on some immediate action items regarding the HRC though: the HRC Board needs to look at its executive director and its senior staff, as well as look at its policy statement on ENDA. They need to make some weighty, possibly painful decisions. If the HRC wishes to appear credible to the transgender community (an LGBT subcommunity that they state they work on behalf of), they need to focus like a laser beam on how to appear to be honest brokers regarding ENDA and full inclusion.

Transgender community members are going to have a difficult time entering into honest discussions about ENDA if the HRC Board doesn’t meaningfully address the organization’s past transgender fails — very directly, and very publicly.

And, that’s just a starting point for discussion with the 800-pound transgender elephant — with issues — in the room. We also need to begin a discussion about bathrooms.

.