A joke made its way around the interwebs a couple of weeks ago:
A unionized public employee, a member of the Tea Party, and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table there is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across, takes 11 cookies, looks at the Tea Partier, and says, “Look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.”
It was worth a chuckle, I suppose, but I found it tough to laugh, because this wrangling over scraps is too commonplace in our trying times. I wish it were only about credit default swaps, mortgages, and job opportunities, but it isn’t. The battle for scarce resources is also taking place on the civil rights front.
Barney Frank, Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, has announced that the latest version of the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA) will be introduced on Capitol Hill “any day now.” Before I get all tittery with excitement, I’ll just recall recent history with this bill when it has landed on the floor of the House.
In one of the best metaphors for divide and conquer for US politics in the 21st Century, ENDA protections for transgender and gender nonconforming people were split out from the original bill that had been introduced in the 109th Congress. King Solomon wouldn’t have written a better cut-down-the-middle narrative. The coalition that had been pushing the original ENDA bill now was fragmented, and activists were angry that the Human Rights Campaign, which had promised on its grandmother would only support a trans-inclusive bill, reneged and supported the sexual orientation-only bill. Yes, Frank introduced ENDA again in the 110th Congress, putting the trans protections back into the language. But many people can’t forgive him and don’t trust him. And why should we?
Here’s the thing: removing “gender identity or expression” from the fight means that one is willing to walk away from all gender nonconforming people on this issue. It entails by definition that one subgroup within the happy family of LGBT gets to take priority when it comes to legal protections. I don’t want to hear the “we’ll come back for your issues another day” bit. That only makes sense if one thinks that legislators love to site around and listen to how great they are for helping this segment or that of the LGBT population. Is it really a bridge too far to include transgender people when we’re talking about protections for sexual orientation in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations? Do we really think that Congresspeople and Senators need to take on protections one subpopulation at a time?
Oh, wait. Apparently they do.
Here’s where the already fine hair gets shredded a bit more: contorting the protections bill around separate communities by sexual orientation and gender identity or expression is all well and good if the perpetrators of an offense knew the history of the aggrieved party, but often bigotry doesn’t work this way. Effeminate gay or bisexual men, masculine lesbians or bisexual women—not to mention gender nonconforming straight people—aren’t free from gender policing bias. The bill language shuts down huge chunks of reality, in which people in different populations face the same spectrum of prejudice. Instead of fostering advocacy for a variety of gender presentations, the history of ENDA sadly separates us from each other and makes us compete for thin resources.
Exacerbating this is the fight for same-sex marriage. Which should come first in the Federal and state legislatures? The last month in Maryland has seen a collapse on both fronts, with the marriage bill pulled from voting due to fears that it would lose on a narrow margin, and the public accommodations language struck from the protections bill. Now gay marriage advocates and transgender activists find little reason to continue their coalition, and who is served by this latest development?
Not gay marriage proponents. Not transfolk.
Here’s my latest come-back-to-reality missive: asking the people with cisgender power who have never thought very hard about what it really means to be queer in America to expand the civil rights of our community is a wholly ineffective way to find liberation. One jurisdiction in Michigan that had passed a protections law actually had it recently rescinded, and not because trans women scared ciswomen in rest rooms. Because of transphobia. Even in DC, where I and others worked so hard to write regulations with teeth that would help us enforce the rights of gender nonconforming people, there was push back against bathrooms and other public accommodations. Asking people to hold their bladders for 12 hours is offensive. Not letting trans women into a women’s shelter when they have nowhere else to turn is offensive. Putting a transgender person into solitary confinement or with the population of their assigned gender at birth is not only offensive, but potentially dangerous.
We need to come together on what we want as a movement. I say this again and again, and still organizations like HRC, Equality Maryland, and others fail to understand that if we weren’t willing to capitulate on the issue of basic respect for the people in our community, we would have a lot more political power. As long as our leaders are willing to split our strength, we will be scrapping for crumbs.