Controversy over the religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act didn’t stop an estimated 200 supporters of transgender rights from across the country from descending on the nation’s capital this week to lobby lawmakers.
The Transgender Lobby Day, spearheaded by the National Center for Transgender Equality with five other other pro-trans groups, is a two-day event that started Monday with a welcome event and workshop sessions at Friends Meeting of Washington for Quaker Church. The second day was reserved for lobbying on Capitol Hill.
More than 200 people, a record for the annual event, were estimated to have taken part in the lobby day, which NCTE’s website says was intended to help with advocacy for ENDA and another bill, the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the significance of citizen lobbyists coming to D.C. was twofold when asked what it meant for ENDA.
“First, trans people understand that passing employment protections is not an option for us; it is a desperately needed necessity,” Keisling said. “Second, trans people are increasingly willing to step up and give voice to that understanding.”
The lobby day kicked off just days after LGBT groups announced they were withdrawing support from ENDA due to concerns over its religious exemption, which is broader than the exemption for other categories of workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Speaking before attendees during the welcome session, LGBT advocates didn’t speak about ENDA itself as much as about increased visibility, access to transition-related care and working to eradicate discrimination against transgender people.
During her remarks, Keisling said the advancements on care were crucial, but noted that bias-related hate crimes against transgender people are still too common. Recalling the deaths of transgender victims of hate violence, Keisling called for a moment a silence among attendees.
Also speaking to attendees was Kylar Broadus, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s policy counsel on transgender civil rights. Broadus spoke at the Lobby Day even though his organization now opposes ENDA because of the religious exemption.
In an informational packet for attendees was a fact sheet explaining that ENDA is necessary because LGBT people face serious discrimination in employment.
Discrimination against transgender people is particularly acute, the fact sheet says, citing statistics that 90 percent of transgender workers say they’ve been mistreated on the job or hid their gender identity to avoid such treatment.
But the fact sheet doesn’t ignore the controversy over the religious exemption. A note at the bottom says ENDA would be better off without the provision that prompted many LGBT advocacy groups to abandon the bill.
“IMPORTANT: The religious exemption in the current draft on ENDA is unacceptable; some now oppose ENDA because the exemption is overly broad,” the note says. “There is a better alternative: a reasonable religious exemption like that found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Also contained in the packet is a fact sheet on another piece of legislation — the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit public schools from discriminating against LGBT students.
At a breakout session following the welcome meeting, attendees were instructed on how to prepare for the upcoming day on Capitol Hill: Address lawmakers as representative, congressman and congresswoman, then their last name; make stories compelling, concise and clear; don’t make demands on what actions a lawmakers should take without backing it up with an explanation.
A number of participants spoke with the Washington Blade after the breakout session, saying they wanted to attend to advance transgender rights, but offering mixed feelings on ENDA’s religious exemption. Others opted to withhold their view altogether.
Kaitlyn Laine, a 43-year-old transgender high school English teacher from Jackson, Mich., said she wanted to participate in the lobby day so she and her students can live without fear of discrimination.
“I’m a teacher, and I want to be certain my students are cared for,” Laine said. “Many of them are going through transition as well…I have several students that are going through different aspects of transition, in addition to looking out for myself.”
Laine said she’s lobbying for ENDA, but doesn’t want the bill passed with the current religious exemption. Still, she said she’d rather have something passed now if the alternative was having to wait years for a better bill.
“I would have to say that we would have to fight for what we have right now,” Laine said. “We have to get something passed through. At this point, when I finish my transition I have no protection at all. When a student graduates, they have no protection whatsoever.”
Jette Espinosa, a 17-year-old transgender Chilean native who now resides in Little Rock, Ark., said he wanted to participate in lobby day to make a difference for LGBT immigrants.
“I don’t think the fight is over with just marriage equality, we need a united workplace, we need equal rights,” Espinosa said. “There is a necessity for people to come together and work on issues that are slowing us down, and for the country to become a better country.”
Espinosa declined to comment on the religious exemption issue, saying he needed to do more research before he could make public comment.
Expressing skepticism that ENDA would pass this year, Keisling said the record-breaking number of those who participated bodes well for the future.
“That over 200 people took the time and the expense to get to D.C. and use their voices and stories to educate Congress, I think is a pretty good measurement that they are very committed to passing a bill,” Keisling said. “I’m confident that when ENDA is in play again next year, trans people will continue to fight and educate to win employment protections.”
The Transgender Lobby Day is a joint project of National Center for Transgender Equality, Trans People of Color Coalition, Trans Latin@ Coalition, the Task Force, PFLAG National, Black Transmen, Inc., and Black Transwomen, Inc.