HRC Embraces Transgender Rights

Board vote signals more inclusive Capitol Hill strategy

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.

During the board meeting, the Transexual Menace, an ad hoc advocacy group, staged a protest outside HRC’s recently opened multi-million dollar headquarters. One protestor, Rebecca Juro of New York, questioned HRC’s legislative priorities. “The right to work and to live free of bigotry and discrimination is more important than the ability to file a joint tax return,” she said, referring to the public efforts HRC had put into July’s Senate vote that stopped the Federal Marriage Amendment, meant to ban same-sex marriage in the Constitution.

Ethan St. Pierre, one of the protest’s organizers, said that any legislation endorsed by LGBT advocacy groups that didn’t contain transgender protections sent out a message that transgender people didn’t matter. He also criticized HRC for not adhering to its transgender-inclusive mission statement. “Congress looks to HRC for a lead on this,” he said. “Without HRC’s backing, we will never have a chance getting onto ENDA.”

The HRC decision to include transgender needs in its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill has a sweeping implication that puts at stake future legislation benefitting the LGBT community. Previously, HRC had said that including transgender protections in ENDA would ensure that it never passed a congressional vote, a political calculation many transgender activists denounced as a betrayal of HRC’s stated mission and an orgnizational bias against outspokenly queer people.

“This is definitely a sea change,” said Christopher Labonte, HRC’s legislative director. “We are now moving forward with a united front, and the LGBT community will no longer be fractured as a result of ENDA.”

Melissa Sklarz, a New York transgendered woman, who served on the credentials committee at the Democratic Party’s recent convention in Boston, said, “We are now a community.”

The last major national group that had yet to make transgender inclusiveness a fixed part of its official mission, HRC now joins other national LGBT advocacy organizations—including Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Pride at Work, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF)—who steadfastly refuse to endorse legislation or intitiatives that exclude gender identity protections.

The version of ENDA currently before Congress and endorsed by the HRC, does not include any language that would protect individuals from workplace discrimination based on their gender identity or expression. As a result, the legislation has been roundly criticized by many LGBT leaders as a moribund bill rendered obsolete by social advances marked, for example, by judicial decisions supporting same-sex marriage and trangendered peoples’ adoption rights.

On August 3, several days before the HRC met to consider its policy change, Matt Foreman, the executive director of the NGLTF, issued a written statement calling for LGBT groups to adamantly insist that ENDA be rewritten to include transgender protections. “ENDA isn’t poised to pass and be signed into law anytime soon, even if most of the bums are thrown out in November,” Foreman wrote. “Now is the time to make it tran-inclusive, so that when all the conditions come together and make ENDA ready to move at last, it will be the law we can all embrace.”

Rea Carey, a deputy to Foreman at the NGLTF, also known as the Task Force, said the HRC decision will send a signal to local lawmakers not only members of Congress. “This not only asserts that no member of the LGBT community should be left out, but it will likely serve as a model for state and local laws,” Carey said. “State and local activists who have been wary to include gender identity and expression in the legislation they support will be less so now that HRC endorses it.” Carey added that sexual-orientation non-discrimination laws, including those inclusive of transgender people, are in place in twenty-five percent of the nation.

Labonte of HRC said that incorporating new language into ENDA protecting transgender people would make the law stronger for lesbians and gays. “Some discrimination hasn’t been because of sexual orientation, but because of how a gay or lesbian person was perceived, and how others reacted to their gender expressions.”

Carey agreed with that assessment and aded that a newly-worded bill would have a wide impact. “We can all point out examples of butch women and feminine men, regardless of sexual orientation, who were targets of harassment because they violated gender roles. These protections will benefit the majority, even straight people.”

Beyond the political wisdom of HRC’s decision, perhaps, the greatest significance for transgender people may be the simple victory of gaining recognition in what has seemed like an otherwise intractable organizational struggle.

Labonte said that extensive negotiations were needed among transgender leaders and LGBT advocacy groups to make the legislation relevant, particularly in litigating discrimination cases. Labonte hopes that a new measure will be ready by January.

That prospect appears unlikely, considering the polarized tone in the Republican-led Congress during a highly partisan presidential contest season. Any new version of ENDA will undoubtedly undergo close scrutiny in committee before reaching the floor of either chamber for a full vote. In late 2003, ENDA passed the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, whose ranking minority member, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, argued strongly for passage, but the Senate’s Republican leadership then sidelined the legislation.

The bill’s main House sponsors are Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, who is gay, and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican.

Some transgender activists have considered Frank to be an impediment to redrafting legislation that addresses gender variances.

In a telephone interview on August 4, befeore the HRC policy decision, Frank said, “[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.”

Sarah Moore, Shays’ spokeswoman, said that HRC had indicated last year that they would ask for a transgender-inclusive law which Shays fully supports.

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