Don't Say This is the ENDA?
|Eric C. Peterson|
|So, by now, the brouhaha that surrounded the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been muted to a dull murmur. For those who might have missed it, here's what happened. The 2007 version of the bill, which failed to pass in 1996, was originally written to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) promised to lobby for a fully inclusive bill, and promised to work against any bill that didn't protect the entire GLBT community. Last September, before the new version of the bill was to be introduced, the House of Representatives removed all references to gender identity. Rep. Barney Frank, a sponsor of the bill, defended the move by explaining that "while there have been literally decades of education of the public about the unfairness of sexual orientation discrimination...our educational efforts regarding gender identity are much less far along, and given the prejudices that exist, face a steeper climb."
In response to these developments, the HRC decided to push for the new version of the bill despite its exclusion of gender identity protections. In November, Sen. Edward Kennedy announced that he would sponsor a similar bill, exclusive of gender identity, in the Senate sometime this year. In the meantime, transgender activists Donna Rose and Jamison Green have resigned from the HRC Board of Directors and Business Council. Many harsh words have been spoken by transgender people who feel they've been thrown under the bus in the name of political expediency, and from GLB people who feel as though transgender issues ought not to derail progress for the rest of the community.
As a workplace diversity practitioner, I've been following these developments and conversations closely. I remain disappointed and saddened by the actions of the politicians and our own leaders as they relate to the exclusion of gender identity protections in the bill. I believe we've made a serious blunder, for a number of reasons.
First, removing the language after it was already included in an earlier version of the bill is simply wrong. Had the 2007 version of ENDA been written without any reference to gender identity, the pragmatic focus on sexual orientation alone might have been easier to defend.
But once the language existed, its removal could only mean one thing: that discrimination against transgender people is somehow okay. And it's not.
Secondly, most gay and lesbian people are ill-served by a bill that does not include gender identity. Non-discrimination based on gender identity does not solely protect transgender workers, but rather protects anyone from being fired or harassed due to the way they identify and express themselves in terms of gender. If the new version of ENDA passes, an employer could still fire a butch lesbian with no repercussions, simply by saying, "I don't care if she's gay or not, but she looks like a man and it makes my customers uncomfortable." Gay men who don't represent our society's current masculine ideal could find themselves in a similar predicament.
As currently written, the Employment Non-Discrimi-nation Act only grants full protection to the most feminine lesbians and the most masculine gay men, and restricts virtually all of us from bringing our entire authentic selves to work each day.
Finally, and most importantly, this is bigger than one bill. If the history of the GLBT civil rights movement mirrors the movements of Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. in any way, we will certainly see the day when the laws of our nation will grant equal rights to all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. That day can't come soon enough for most of us, but it will come. And then, we'll still have a long fight in front of us.
Institutional racism and sexism, while technically illegal, still infect just about every workplace in America, and there's no reason to believe that heterosexism will simply end once we've got the law on our side. Consider this: in 1919, the National Women's Party, led by legendary suffragist Alice Paul, refused to allow women of color to march with white women and appeared willing to support a bill that would allow only white women to vote. How much would you bet that women of color were assured that they'd be taken care of later? Ask any feminist working for sex equity in America today, and if she's honest, she'll tell you that the rift between white women and women of color is still a long way away from healing.
And so, as a community, I believe we need to ask ourselves: are we truly willing to accept what might be an irreparable rift between GLB and transgender people for the sake of one bill that may very well end up a single paragraph in our collective history? Picture our community ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now; it may well be that in addition to being the right thing to do and the smart thing to do, strengthening our ties with our trans brothers and sisters will be, in the long run, the most practical thing to do, after all.
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity educator and practitioner based in Washington, DC, and a frequent visitor to Rehoboth Beach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 01 February 08, 2008