Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rep. Frank tentative support for trans-inclusive ENDA

In an interview posted yesterday on Mile High Political Views Blog by Mark Segal, a well-known gay journalist, US Representative Barney Frank is quoted, surprisingly, as suggesting that a gender identity inclusive ENDA may be passed in the next Congress if more Democrats are elected in the November elections. ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, is a bill that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and, maybe, gender identity. In the last Congress, Frank initially sponsored a bill that included gender identity, and then did an about-face, removing gender identity and placing it in a standalone bill that had little chance of passage. In the interview, Frank suggests that his position may again change.

In response to a question about the effect of an increase of Democratic presence in the House, and the priorities of the LGBT community, Frank said that removal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" will probably have to wait until we are on course to get out of Iraq, that the hate crimes bill will be the easiest to accomplish first, and that ENDA should come next.

"Then we will get to ENDA. The question now is whether enough lobbying has been done to include people who are transgender. In my own home state of Massachusetts, I sent testimony in favor. There was a proposal to add transgender discrimination to the legislation and it failed. There’s still a political problem there that some of the leadership doesn’t want to confront. We need more lobbying on that. We had a very good hearing on that issue and it helped. Previously, we were running into problems getting it out of committee, and I think the hearing we had a major impact on that. It also depends on if we get more Democrats. The more Democrats we have, and obviously not every Democrat votes with us, the better we’ll do. If we can pick up 15 Democratic seats, then I think we are in a good position to pass a transgender-inclusive ENDA."

This is a sea-change in Frank's attitude. As a senior member of Congress, and Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank is now one of the most powerful legislators in Washington. Thus, even a minor and seemingly unimportant change in position is significant to a reading of the Washington tea leaves.

For those of you new to these issues, when "gender identity" was removed from the ENDA bill last year, it created a major rift in the GLBT community. The President of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy organization, had promised two weeks previously, to a cheering crowd at a transgender conference, that his organization would never support a bill that excluded gender identity. The organization, however, did an about face, and overrode him to support the split bill. Rep. Frank made accusations were made that the transgender community had done little or nothing to lobby in support of ENDA, thus infuriating hundreds of transgender activists around the nation who had worked hard on lobbying efforts. He and HRC also suggested that transgender people were trying to hurt gays and lesbians who were suffering from employment discrimination by stalling the bill, though it was known that President Bush would veto it. GLBT advocacy groups, such as Lambda Legal, argued that inclusion of "gender identity" would help many gay employees fight against gender stereotyping, thus widening the importance of "gender identity" to many non-transgender people in the community. They were jeered by conservative law professors, who challenged their legal reasoning as specious. (Some of those professors are now ardent McCain apologists, much to the chagrin of Rep. Frank.) Others derided the notion that transgender people are part of the same community as gays and lesbians, implying that transgenders are a separate group who seek to ride the gay coattails. Thus, the reference by Rep. Frank to a "transgender-inclusive" ENDA is a dig to those who believe that there is a cohesive "GLBT" (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community. Frank also said that a vote on an inclusive bill would be disastrous because if the bill were defeated, then the bill would be a proven loser that could not easily be revived. (This, in spite of the fact that ENDA had, in fact, been defeated by Congress in previous votes.)

Over 350 GLBT organizations around the country joined together in a group called "United ENDA" to protest and to demand that gender identity be returned to the bill. Editorials and bloggers on both sides erupted into a sea of recrimination. Ultimately, gender identity was removed, and the bill passed the House, but the bill was never raised in the Senate.

In a related story, the Democratic Party platform this year includes the idea that we should protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The meaning of this in relation to actual legislation is unclear, and I have not paid much attention to that story. But when the dots are connected by this statement from the powerful Rep. Frank, I begin to see smoke signals.

The mention of ENDA by Rep. Frank is only a few words long, and I might have missed it if I had only looked at the headline. But it jolted me awake this morning as I was reviewing my blog reader, and I felt compelled to comment.

You can see the interview here. (Earlier I had mistakenly said that the interview was initially published by Pink News, and reported about a truncated version of the interview.)