No compromise on ENDA

Compromising on civil rights is always unacceptable

EDITORIAL The move by US Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to remove protections for transgender people from a landmark antidiscrimination bill has set off a remarkable furor in the queer community nationwide. The condemnation of the Frank move by even fairly mainstream lesbian and gay organizations is a sign of how far trans people have come — and the fact that Frank, the first openly gay man to serve in Congress, isn't budging is a sign of how far the political establishment still has to go.

But the full bill, without the cuts, is still very much alive, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–San Francisco) needs to move it to the floor and bring it to a vote.

HR 2015 has been a priority of the Human Rights Campaign and other national LGBT groups for years. The bill, also known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, in its original version would have outlawed employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The second part of that phrase is critical, not just to transgender people but to queer workers in general: as the American Civil Liberties Union points out in a legal analysis of the changes, the gay and lesbian people most likely to face discrimination in the workplace are those who don't hew to traditional male and female roles. Effeminate men and butch women are far more at risk than, say, a gay man who can easily pass as straight. "The more masculine a gay man is or the more feminine a lesbian is, the less the likelihood of discrimination," the ACLU notes. As the Lambda Legal Defense Fund writes, "This new bill also leaves out a key element to protect any employee, including lesbians, gay men and bisexuals who may not conform to their employer's idea of how a man or woman should look and act. This is a huge loophole through which employers sued for sexual orientation discrimination can claim that their conduct was actually based on gender expression, a type of discrimination that the new bill does not prohibit."

But the politics are more difficult. Frank argues that Congress might pass a stripped-down version of the bill, but the votes aren't there for anything that can be described as protecting transgender people. Some protection for some lesbians and gays, he argues, is better than none at all.

That ignores the reality, which is that George W. Bush is going to veto any bill that protects queer people from discrimination anyway. The fight over HR 2015 is largely symbolic; the bill won't become law until there's a Democrat in the White House. And if the gender-identity language isn't in the bill this time, it will be much harder to add it in later.

All civil rights advances seem hopeless at first. The first marriage-equality bill in the California Legislature faced strong opposition, but Assemblymember Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) kept bringing it back — and every time it came up, it got more votes. ENDA's got the same prospects.

Of course, there's a larger issue here: compromising on civil rights is always unacceptable. And as writer Wayne Besen puts it, "A minority as small as the trans community will never have the political clout to go it alone, nor will they have the funds to wage a credible fight in Congress unless Bill Gates wakes up tomorrow and decides to have a sex change. To put it bluntly, their only chance at legal protection is under the gay and lesbian banner."

The HRC has been awfully weak, refusing to pull its support for the watered-down bill, but most other LGBT groups nationwide are urging Congress not to accept the Frank proposal. We agree. The fate of HR 2015 is in the hands of Pelosi, who can simply bring the original bill to the floor. That's what activists should push her to do.