Turning HRC’s Promise Into Action

A resolution adopted earlier this month by the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) represents an enormous step forward for the transgender community. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community’s leading voice in Washington is now clearly on the record saying that transgender inclusion in federal anti-discrimination legislation is essential, not optional.

And it seems that, at last, HRC is ready to treat the trans community as a full partner in the LGBT civil rights struggle.

But it is much too early to “declare victory” or even to assume that the most difficult struggles are over. Instead, they may be just beginning. It is important to take note of the fact that HRC’s action has not led to immediate pledges by members of Congress to broaden the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) to cover transgender and gender-different people. In fact, Rep. Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts Democrat who wields great influence on LGBT legislation, has been quoted in recent days as arguing against broadening the bill.

A good deal remains to be done, by both HRC and the transgender community.

First, what should trans people do?

We should thank HRC. Transgender groups should send HRC messages of thanks and encouragement. Trans people who resigned their HRC memberships, or canceled their pledges, in protest against HRC’s earlier non-inclusive stance should rejoin or reinstate their pledges, and let HRC know that we’re doing it because of the board’s vote August 7.

Transgender people and allies should use the opportunity offered by the congressional recess this month to seek meetings with their representatives at home in their districts and press them to support a broadly inclusive ENDA. (The Web site of the National Center for Transgender Equality, nctequality.org, provides full details.) If possible, invite a supportive HRC staffer, board member or activist to come along.

Trans people and allies should urge any state, local or national LGBT or allied groups with which they have influence to adopt stands similar to HRC’s.

Trans people should adjust their attitudes, and be prepared to adjust them more, as warranted. For years now, many of us in the transgender community have focused our energy primarily on persuading HRC to go the final mile on transgender inclusion. As a result, sometimes we’ve been quick with criticism and blame, and slow to appreciate how far HRC has come. But now, HRC seems no longer to be an obstacle to transgender inclusion in federal legislation, so it is time for us to refocus our attention and energy on educating members of Congress and potential friends in the straight world.

Finally, transgender people and allies should watch closely how HRC follows up in the coming months on its new policy. We must be alert to any signs that HRC is faltering in its new commitment in the face of congressional resistance. While there is much good will and pro-inclusion sentiment on its staff and board, in the past some promising gestures by HRC have proven disappointing in practice. Borrowing a phrase from the waning days of the Cold War, we must “trust, but verify.”

What should HRC do?

HRC should immediately send a clear, unequivocal and forceful message to Congress that transgender inclusion in federal legislation is now both essential and nonnegotiable. While we’ve been told that the lead sponsors of ENDA have already been so informed, that message should be put out as widely as possible and as soon as possible.

HRC must let members of Congress know that it means business. Because HRC backed off on inclusion last year, legislators may assume that the board’s new policy is simply posturing. HRC must take steps to disabuse them of that notion, and leave legislators in no doubt that their positions on transgender inclusion will be taken into account on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard and in its decisions about endorsements and financial support. There should be no waivers or “free rides” for legislators who tell HRC that LGB is okay, but not the T.

HRC should begin taking serious action to insure that the diversity of the LGBT community is reflected in its leadership and its staff as well as its policies. HRC should make a commitment to add “out” transgender activists to its board of directors and its board of governors soon. Transgender people have been included in HRC’s mission statement for more than three years now, so this step is long overdue. If HRC’s existing procedures for recruiting board members prove an obstacle to achieving that goal, they should be re-examined. Similarly, HRC should hire transgender-identified people as soon as possible for prominent, visible staff positions, preferably those that involve regular contact with legislators. Doing so would help to assure the trans community of HRC’s commitment, and help to convince legislators and the non-LGBT public that the unity and solidarity of the LGBT community are a reality, not just a slogan.

HRC should take steps to assure that its public communications reflect the diversity of its mission and constituency on a regular basis, not just once in a while. It should make sure that it never again produces a press release that ignores or tokenizes the transgender community, like its recent release on Senate passage of the hate crimes bill.

Above all, we must not lose sight of the great step forward that the trans community, HRC and our other LGBT allies have taken together in the last few days. This may well be the greatest turning point in the history of the transgender political movement since ‘93, when the first trans inclusive state law was passed in Minnesota. It’s a moment to be proud of and to cherish for years to come.

Donna Cartwright is convener of the Transgender Caucus of Pride at Work, AFL-CIO, and was among the ten trans activists who made a presentation to the HRC board on August 7, when it voted its change of policy.

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