June 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm EST | by Jessica Lee
Is ENDA the best use of our energy?

Last week the House passed important legislation toward the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a discriminatory law that does not allow gays to serve openly in the military. The question we now face is what our legislative priorities will be going forward.

I would like to see an agenda that is as broad, practical (meaning that it has a good chance of being enacted) and strategic as it can be, advancing equality for as much of the LGBT community as possible in the most meaningful ways. We have limited resources in terms of volunteers, money, political capital and lobbying, so this choice is important. Most national LGBT organizations have targeted the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as their primary focus. ENDA, which would outlaw discrimination in the workplace, is no stranger to our cause, as it has been in the legislative hopper for many years with no progress.

Ending discrimination in the workplace is a worthy goal, but since ENDA does not apply to government-sanctioned discrimination, which is the most serious against us, ENDA is no panacea and our money, lobbying and votes should support an agenda that is broader than solely ENDA. Further, the private sector has made tremendous progress toward equality in the past decade and might not be the best place to focus change efforts. Transgender activist and blogger Corinna Cohn, proposes that there might be other ways to accomplish ENDA’s goals:

“Proponents of the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA) say the bill is necessary to protect vulnerable people from being judged on personal traits. However, the biggest gains in workplace protections have come from businesses, not government. The 2010 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), reported that 72 percent of businesses surveyed have gender identity protections, and the number grows each year.

“When groups like HRC let businesses know that they are going to be measured and scored based on their corporate policies, the businesses evaluate themselves for changes based on community expectations and on the practices of their competitors.

“This is the most logical way to advance workplace protections, because discrimination is a phenomenon of human attitudes, and attitudes are changed through experience and personal growth, not through the imposition of federal law. Discrimination based on personal characteristics is an affront to human dignity, but creating federal penalties for discrimination will only spray perfume on one of the symptoms of discrimination without addressing the underlying cause.”

I am not suggesting that our LGBT organizations abandon pursuit of ENDA; what I am suggesting is that ENDA might not deserve the tremendous expense of political capital that it is getting to the exclusion of other avenues of change. What other strategic priorities that improve the lives of the most LGBT people should we pursue? Healthcare equality is one idea.

This year we missed a historic opportunity, with the recent passage of massive health care reform, to address the inequality of the tax treatment of domestic partner health benefits. Democrats delivered for unions by exempting the first $27,500 of a straight family’s health plan from the “Cadillac tax” and delayed any taxation on those benefits until 2018. Gay individuals, parents and their children who receive their health insurance through their domestic partners pay income tax on dollar one of their benefits. This is a huge disparity in the treatment of gays and straights. It is also a hardship for middle and low-income gay families and an injustice for all gays. Lobbying to include domestic partners in the “Cadillac tax” exemption would have been smart, non-controversial and helped many in our community. Instead of making progress, by ignoring this opportunity we were left with the expansion of a discriminatory system.

One also has to ask where gay Democrats Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis were when this legislation was being debated for almost a year. Other Democrats stood up for their constituents to the point of ridicule but our advocates were silent. Perhaps that is because we did not ask them to speak up for us.

There are many other areas in which a practical approach could improve the day-to-day lives of the majority of gay Americans, especially those who are middle and lower-income. The tax code is full of inequities and would be a good place to start looking for opportunities to change.

Jessica Lee is a new board member of GOProud and regular contributor to the Blade. Reach her at jlee@goproud.org.

  • You wrote: “The 2010 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), reported that 72 percent of businesses surveyed have gender identity protections, and the number grows each year”.

    Well, if only the HRC’s index was based on actual jobs obtained by people like me who are transgender. What good does an index do, if it doesn’t really represent jobs? We need to work, and I think federal ENDA protection should help. True, you cannot legislate acceptance, but sheesh, we’re dying out here without jobs. Marriage equality would be great, so would DADT, but eating and living somewhere would be nice for folks like us who seem to get lost in all the controversy. Transgender, gender variant and genderqueer folks and butch lesbians and fem gays have often taken the brunt of the pain, and have little to show in terms of gain. Many of us support you, some of us are gay or lesbian too, so why is there always such a rush to throw us under the bus?

    You wrote “Other Democrats stood up for their constituents to the point of ridicule but our advocates were silent. Perhaps that is because we did not ask them to speak up for us.”

    I would disagree with this assertion. Yes our “advocates” have been quick to dump trans people at the first chance, almost like it’s mandatory now. People like me without jobs, have spent tons of time writing all our Democratic leaders, calling them, and even talking to them in person when possible. I’m almost sick of the amount of form letters I have received over the years. But hey, I guess that is the luxury of not having to bother with a job or an income? Unfortunately, without a job, I don’t have the luxury of attending fancy dinners and lobby days, but you will find me out there with a sign in my spare time, supporting DADT, NO H8 and everything LGBTQQI under the sun. I have also donated small amounts to every LGBT cause, and worked to support the Dems, including President Barack’s campaign. I think it is not accurate to continue to portray the T in the mix as “not asking them to speak up for us” or pretending we just sit around doing our nails all day. (wait is that a chip in my nail color?)

    Also, you must certainly understand that without gender-identity protections that are real, and backed up with some sort of real teeth, the sexual orientation protections alone only protect “straight-acting closeted gays and lebians right? ” It is precisely when someone can “see” that you don’t fit the straight world, that the problems begin.

    How about funding for jobs for transgender, genderqueer, and gender variant folks then? Help us to become employed, and I’m sure we’ll happy to contribute from our newfound wealth to black-tie dinners and political fundraisers.

  • ENDA won’t get conservative Dem or Republican support while it has transgender/gender identity included. The smart thing of course would be to get ENDA without the trans provision and then work on trans later. But the socialist junta that runs political lesbian and gay America (which they have dubbed LGBT America) won’t hear of it–because the good should be the enemy of the perfect. With leadership like that, we deserve what we get (unfortunately).

  • This is a narrow minded agenda for ‘families’ and middle income individuals. I don’t have a family. I can’t get a job because I’m transgendered. Finding and keeping work is more important than you saving on your taxes. Get a grip. ENDA is the most important issue at hand for the LGBTQ community. Go back to your job and think about it.

    • ENDA may be really important to the small number of transgenders (even then, not all of them), but for most of us, it will hardly have a large (indeed, any) impact on our lives. Maybe you can’t get a job because you’re not a good employee.

  • Whatever wrote: “Finding and keeping work is more important than you saving on your taxes. Get a grip. ”

    well said!!

    The author is yet another Republican who wants tax savings over guaranteed human rights. How sad.

  • There would be more progress toward passing ENDA if pro-equality GOPers would lobby their members of Congress, as pro-equality Dems and independents have been doing and are doing. Support for ENDA is bipartisan, but Congress needs to hear that in the calls it gets.

    The author’s suggestion of de-emphasizing ENDA now is disheartening and misguided, when ENDA is one of the most reachable and meaningful goals of our movement toward equal rights under the law.

    The author of this op-ed says that changes of attitude will come from the private sector. Well, if we cannot be honest about ourselves at work for fear of losing our livelihoods to discrimination, then we are not very free to help change attitudes in the private sector or anywhere else.

    And since it remains legal for good employees to be fired from our jobs based on our sexual orientation in 29 states, and based on gender identity in 38 states, that makes for a whole lot of places where we are not yet free to 1.) live without fear of discrimination in the critical area of employment, and 2.) live honestly so that we can continue to change attitudes by coming out.

    The very places that are in desparate need for us to come out in greater numbers are the very states that will not be passing statewide non-discrimination laws any time soon. I think it’s awesome that Americans are protected in California and Vermont (and yes, even a few more moderate states in between). But if we want real change for full equality coast-to-coast not just on job discrimination but on the full range of equal rights issues, we have to be able to be honestly ourselves in Idaho and Utah and Alabama and yes, right here in Virginia, without living in fear of unfair job discrimination.

    Furthermore, ENDA, slowly but surely, has made progress. And far from placing too many resources into its passage, our national and statewide organizations have been pulled in so many different directions that I fear our movement has placed too FEW resources into a laser-like targeted focus on passing ENDA. If our state and national organizations, and all equality supporters and bloggers and organizers, and pro-equality businesses and religious organizations, just focused on passing ENDA just for three months, it would finally be the law of the land.

    Our best window for getting this done is now, this year, before there are fewer equality supporters in congress. Depending on the outcome of the fall elections, we may well be at the kind of high watermark of potential equal rights support in Congress and the White House the likes of which we may not see again for another decade. NOW is the time to act for equal rights.

    The upshot, once again, is we must keep calling our U.S. Senators and Representatives at 202-224-3121 and urging them to PASS the Employment Non-Discrimination Act NOW. Job security, fairness in the workplace, and inclusion in the kind of basic civil rights protections all other Americans take for granted — these issues are so critical that we must keep our focus and pass ENDA now.

  • I have to agree and disagree with GOProud member Jessica Lee’s commentary. First of all, I do think ENDA should be our top priority, and we should hold the Dems accountable when they fail to deliver on this critical piece of legislation. As for the Republicans, you can probably count Pro-LGBT Repulicans on one hand there are so few of them, but even so, there are enough Democrats to pass these bills without Republican support anyway. Another bill that actually deserves much more attention than it has received is the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act. This bill has passed out of committee in the House and Senate and is just waiting for a vote on the floor of both houses of Congress. When I have called Nancy Pelosi’s office about this, I have repeatedly been told that the schedule for floor votes is really in the hands of Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer (Majority leader) and that he needs to schedule it for floor action. In the Senate its really all in Harry Reid’s hands.
    My own priority list of LGBT bills reads as follows: 1) Pass ENDA, 2) Pass the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, 3) Pass the Uniting American Familes Act, 4) Pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act, 5) Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and 6) Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (This one would be ranked much higher, but I’m afraid its not going to see any action for a long time to come.)

  • There is a good reason for ENDA to be a top priority, but we need to work sensibly and get it passed! It is the “gender identity” provision that is causing problems for most people, so let’s get our basic rights for the Gay/Lesbian community and then worry about details. The concerns of businesspeople are understandable, and in some cases, valid about the broadly-worded language that has scared away so many legislators.

    ENDA is so critical because a greater number of gay people will be less afraid to come out at work, especially in the states where they are not currently protected. Most of the time when people come out they create “zones of tolerance” around themselves — it is easy to hate a group of people you don’t know but much harder to hate the person at the next desk or with whom you often sit in the lunchroom. In the days when only radicals and the flamboyant were out, that was how folks thought of all gay people — now that people are learning about the “regular folks” around them, perceptions are gradually improving.

    If every gay/lesbian person were magically out tomorrow, almost all of the discrimination and hatred we face would rapidly melt, once people had to perceive us in terms of friends, neighbours, family members, clergy, business contacts, etc. whom they know and like. While we can’t make that happen we need to move in that direction. ENDA is a huge step!

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