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New push for 2012 Senate hearing on ENDA

Committee has votes to move pro-LGBT bill to floor

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Mark Kirk, gay news, gay politics dc, enda

Republican ENDA co-sponsor, Sen. Mark Kirk is currently recovering from a stroke he suffered in January. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

LGBT rights supporters are calling for a Senate hearing and committee vote to draw attention to one of the longest sought pieces of pro-LGBT legislation in Congress: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

While the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 makes any movement of the legislation in that chamber unlikely, Democrats remain in control of the Senate and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a longtime supporter of ENDA, remains chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, called Harkin a “strong champion for workplace fairness for all Americans” and said ENDA supporters are fortunate the Iowa Democrat heads the panel responsible for the legislation.

“I hope he will use his chairmanship to organize an ENDA hearing this spring or summer,” Almeida said. “Given that 70 or 80 percent of Americans are in favor of ENDA, and that support crosses party lines, this is a winning wedge issue for Democrats to use in an election year.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said ENDA supporters have been asking the committee for a hearing “for a long time” throughout the course of the 112th Congress.

“When there’s nothing else going on, it’s always good to try to get a hearing,” Keisling said. “It keeps the ball moving. It keeps reminding everybody that there are some issues that we all know we have to cover eventually.”

ENDA has been a high priority for the LGBT community for decades. It would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in most situations in the public and private workforce. Even when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate in the 111th Congress, no committee or floor vote was taken on the legislation.

A hearing in the Senate presents a historic opportunity because no transgender witness has testified before the upper chamber on the importance of ENDA or told a story about being discriminated against on the basis of gender identity.

According to “Injustice at Every Turn,” a report published last year by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people face significantly high rates of workplace discrimination. The study says transgender people have double the rate of unemployment compared to non-trans people. Ninety percent of those who participated in the survey reported experiencing discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding their gender identity to avoid it.

In 2009, the House Education & Labor Committee held a hearing that featured testimony from Vandy Beth Glenn, a former legislative editor at the Georgia General Assembly who was fired in 2007 after she announced she was undergoing gender transition. While no federal law prohibits discrimination against transgender people, the 11th Circuit of Court of Appeals issued a sweeping decision in December that Glenn’s employer unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of gender because she wasn’t conforming to gender stereotypes.

A similar hearing in the Senate in the same year had no transgender witness, although there was testimony from a high-ranking Obama administration official, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Almeida said the inclusion of at least one — and preferably several — transgender witness at any hearing by the Senate HELP Committee on ENDA would be “absolutely critical.”

“I vividly remember sitting in the counsel’s chair on the House Labor Committee dais as Vandy Beth Glenn testified somberly about being fired on the same day she told her employer that she planned to transition from male to female,” Almeida said. “There’s a lot of important education that happens when transgender Americans get to share their stories and talk about their lives.”

While Almeida served as ENDA’s lead counsel in the U.S. House from 2007 to 2010, the House Education & Labor Committee held three separate ENDA hearings and called five transgender witnesses to testify. Almeida said one of the three hearings was “historic” because it exclusively focused on workplace discrimination against transgender people.

“That was the first time any congressional committee had ever held any hearing specifically about discrimination against transgender Americans,” Almeida said. “By comparison, the U.S. Senate is way behind.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Keisling said “a lot of people” could be qualified to testify as a transgender witness for a hearing on ENDA. Without naming anyone in particular, she said the candidate should be “as fresh as possible.”

“A six-month-old case is better than a 20-year-old,” Keisling said. “It’s a really tough thing. It’s has to deal with what members of the Senate on the committee, who you’re trying to reach out to, how you balance it geographically and demographically.”

In addition to holding a hearing on ENDA, the committee could easily report out the legislation to the Senate floor. Besides Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the chief sponsor of the bill, all 12 Democrats on the panel are co-sponsors as well as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who’s one of three Republicans in the Senate who’ve signed on in support of the bill along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Moving the bill out of committee could draw media attention to the legislation similar to what happened in November, when the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines reported out the Respect for Marriage Act — legislation that would repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.

Almeida said Harkin could take a cue from Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who decided to move forward with the DOMA repeal markup, by applying the same standard to ENDA.

“I imagine Sen. Leahy realized that [the Respect for Marriage Act] was not going to pass the full Senate this session, but he held the hearing and mark-up anyway because those events are good ways to tell compelling stories, create good media attention in favor of equality, and build momentum for eventual passage,” Almeida said. “We need the same push and momentum for ENDA.”

But a committee vote on ENDA would likely be the most extensive action that could take place on the legislation in the current Congress.

The bill has 41 co-sponsors, which is short of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor. Last year, advocates said a floor vote in the Senate could be successful — but that was largely contingent on pressure from President Obama, who has been quiet on ENDA during the 112th Congress. Any movement on ENDA in the Republican-controlled House is unlikely.

Moreover, the offices of lawmakers who would be responsible for moving forward with ENDA in committee were reluctant to say much about the prospects of having either a hearing or a markup on the bill.

Justine Sessions, a HELP Committee spokesperson, said the panel hasn’t planned any hearing beyond the month of April.

Previous hearings have emphasized topics such as maintaining America’s global competitiveness, but nothing related to ENDA.

Julie Edwards, a Merkley spokesperson, said she’s unable to comment on the discussions her boss may have had with Harkin on the issue.

“Sen. Merkley continues to explore every avenue to make legal discrimination a relic of the past,” Edwards said. “We cannot discuss private conversations with colleagues, but he will explore every option.”

Nonetheless, LGBT groups insist they’ve been pushing for Senate action on ENDA. Freedom to Work, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force have each said they have been in contact with the committee to urge them to take action.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said HRC has “worked with” the committee for action on ENDA.

“As with all of our priority bills, we constantly work with our allies to find every opportunity to move the ball down the field,” Cole-Schwartz said. “A Senate hearing and markup on an inclusive ENDA would represent tremendous progress and we’ve worked with Senators Harkin, Merkley, Kirk and others toward that end.”

Stacey Long, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s director of public policy and government affairs, said her group “has been advocating this position to Sen. Harkin and other lawmakers on the Hill.”

“The Task Force staunchly supports a trans-inclusive hearing and markup of ENDA this year,” Long said. “Political leaders need to hear the stories, see the startling data, and most importantly, pass an inclusive ENDA.”

But Keisling said one of the challenges with having either a hearing or markup on ENDA is Kirk “being out of the picture temporarily.” He’s been recovering from a stroke that he suffered in January.

“He’s by far the best Republican supporter on the HELP committee,” Keisling said. “Having him not there right now complicates the picture. … It would be great to have Sen. Kirk when there was a hearing, and I don’t have the slightest idea when he’s coming back.”

A Senate hearing on ENDA could represent an opportunity for renewed focus on another ask of the Obama administration: an executive order from Obama requiring companies doing business with the federal government to have LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies.

Harkin has already expressed support for the executive order, telling the Washington Blade last year he “would strongly support an executive order from President Obama that makes clear government contractors cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” As far as other members of the committee go, Merkley has said he’d support the directive, while Kirk has said the statute is the right way because a future president could rescind the order.

Almeida said discussion about the executive order during a committee hearing may come up, but he doesn’t think “anybody would make a big deal about it” — mostly because Republican senators opposed to ENDA and the executive order would likely skip the hearing as they’ve done in years past.

“I don’t think the topic of the executive order needs any more study given that the lawyers at President Obama’s Justice Department and Labor Department have already done more than a year’s worth of research and then recommended that the president sign the executive order,” Almeida said. “It’s now time for President Obama to sign the order.”

Multiple sources have told the Blade the Labor and Justice Departments have cleared such a measure, but the White House hasn’t said whether Obama will issue the directive.

Keisling also said she doesn’t think devoting any portion of the hearing to the executive order will be necessary.

“I think the president knows who in Congress would support it and who wouldn’t,” Keisling said. “I don’t see that would be helpful in moving it along at all. It would probably make us all feel good if there were more noise about it, but I don’t think it’ll help move along the issue.”

 

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National

Senate passes Respect for Marriage Act

Bill approved by 61-36 vote margin

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The U.S. Senate voted 61-36 on Tuesday to officially pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a historic piece of legislation that is expected to soon become law after members in the U.S. House of Representatives sign off on a bipartisan amendment added by their Senate colleagues.

Designed as a vehicle to mitigate the fallout if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority guts the constitutional protections for marriage equality, the bill was narrowly construed — in part to help guarantee that it withstands potential challenges from conservative legal actors.

Nevertheless, the Respect for Marriage Act is a landmark bill that has been backed by virtually every LGBTQ advocacy organization in the country. The legislation repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act while enshrining into law substantive protections for same-sex couples.

Regardless of whether or how the high court might decide to revisit the marriage question, the Respect for Marriage Act will protect the federally ordained rights and benefits that have long been enjoyed by married gay and lesbian couples. And should the court pave the way for conservative states like Texas to renew their bans on same-sex marriage, the law will require them to officially recognize and honor those that are performed in jurisdictions where they remain legal.

Despite earning broad bipartisan support from lawmakers in the House, which passed its version of the bill this summer with an overwhelming majority — including votes from 47 Republican members — the Respect for Marriage Act faced an uncertain future in the Senate.

Conservative members in the chamber’s Republican caucus argued the bill would jeopardize religious freedoms, concerns that a group of five bipartisan senators sought to allay with an amendment that, among other provisions, clarifies the right of religious nonprofit organizations to refuse “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

Writing the amendment were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was considered the driving force behind the bill’s passage through the Senate.

Several Republican senators proposed additional amendments that — per a narrow procedural vote before and another shortly after the Thanksgiving break — were not put up for debate, thereby allowing the Respect for Marriage Act to clear the Senate with Tuesday’s vote.

Barely surpassing the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority with one extra “yea,” the Senate’s passage of the bill came despite the best efforts of conservative opponents who had run coordinated campaigns to erode support among GOP members.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris each issued statements shortly after Tuesday’s vote.

The president celebrated the “bipartisan achievement” by Congress, writing: “For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled. It will also ensure that, for generations to follow, LGBTQI+ youth will grow up knowing that they, too, can lead full, happy lives and build families of their own.”

Harris wrote: “The Respect for Marriage Act ultimately stands for a simple principle: all Americans are equal and their government should treat them that way. Today, we are one step closer to achieving that ideal with pride.”

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also praised the victory.

“Today, a bipartisan group of 61 Senators made clear that this country will not roll back the clock on marriage equality,” said Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the Equality Caucus. “The Respect for Marriage Act is a crucial safeguard for LGBTQ+ people whose lives have been forever changed by Obergefell v. Hodges and Americans who are in interracial marriages thanks to Loving v. Virginia. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court declared marriage equality as the law of the land. Today, the Senate ensured those marriages will continue to be protected.”

LGBTQ groups celebrate the win

“Diverse faith traditions across the nation came together to demand respect for LGBTQ+ Americans – we staked our ground and refused to let this opportunity slip away, ” said Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president of the Interfaith Alliance, in a statement Tuesday.

“The  LGBTQ+ community has faced ongoing deadly violence, legislative assaults and constant threats — including the deadly shooting in Colorado Springs barely one week ago,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement from the organization.

“Today, with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate — a historic moment that marks the first federal legislative win for LGBTQ+ equality in over 10 years, since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — the 568,000 same-sex married couples in this country can breathe a sigh of relief that their marriages will be protected from future attacks,” said Robinson, who yesterday began her tenure as the first Black queer woman to lead America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis responded on Twitter and in a statement, writing: “As so many LGBTQ people face uncertainty and harm on the state level and extremists on the Supreme Court vow to reconsider the landmark Obergefell decision, this victory will provide comfort and security to millions of people and their families.”

“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act is a proud moment for our country and an affirmation that, notwithstanding our differences, we share a profound commitment to the principle of equality and justice for all,” reads a statement from National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon.

LGBTQ Victory Institute President Annise Parker said, “This landmark piece of legislation protects the marriages of millions of LGBTQ Americans who have not slept well for months, wondering if our marriages would be dissolved by an activist court. While the Respect for Marriage Act is undoubtedly one of the most important pro-LGBTQ laws ever passed, it does not require states to grant marriages to LGBTQ couples. Until then, our fight is not over.”

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District of Columbia

D.C. Rainbow History Project launches Trans History Initiative

$15,000 D.C. government grant funded project

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s Rainbow History Project announced it has launched a new project called the Trans History Initiative “to better integrate the often-under-represented histories of trans people into RHP’s existing programming.”

In a statement announcing the new initiative, the LGBTQ history group says it has been awarded a $15,000 grant from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs to fund the project.

“The Trans History Initiative will help RHP deepen its connections with the Trans community through expanded efforts to preserve the history and cultural contributions of Washington-area trans communities,” the statement says. “The Initiative was developed with RHP’s trans members, trans community pioneers and trans board members,” it says.

The statement says the grant will enable Rainbow History Project to hire one or more coordinators to “build on four exiting RHP programs: collecting oral histories; preserving archival documents; tracking timelines and historic places; and hosting public education panels.”

According to the statement, the new trans initiative is in keeping with Rainbow History Project’s long-standing mission.

“Since its founding in 2000, RHP’s mission is to collect, preserve and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts and culture of metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s diverse LGBTQ communities,” the statement says. “RHP strives to ensure that its collection, volunteer corps and programming reflect and represent the full diversity of those communities.”

The statement also points out that due to longstanding bias and discrimination faced by transgender people it has been difficult to obtain information about their lives and accomplishments.

“Unfortunately, many trans people often left behind little record of their lives — and personal histories that do exist are often scrubbed of an individual’s trans identity by society or even their own families,” said Jeffrey Donahoe, RHP’s director of oral history.

“This revisionism, both unintentional and intentional, makes it difficult for the broader community to understand and empathize with the struggles and successes of the Trans community,” Donahoe said in the statement.

“The Trans History Initiative will counter this revisionism by giving another platform for trans people to tell their stories to the broader public,” he said. “We need to ensure that trans narratives are not lost to the ravages of time but preserved as part of the historical record.”

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State Department

U.S. diplomat says negotiations to release Brittney Griner have stalled

WNBA star remains in Russian penal colony

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In remarks published Monday, Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that talks to free jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were continuing through the “designated channel.”

During the long ranging interview covering a variety of subjects, Rood was asked if she intended to visit the imprisoned WNBA star who is serving time in a Mordovian prison.

“Of course, we are going to do this as soon as the Russian authorities give us permission to visit Brittney Griner in the new colony where she was recently transferred,” the American diplomat responded and in answer to a follow-up question regarding Griner’s status. “As far as we understood from talking to her, she is healthy and doing as well as can be expected in her difficult circumstances.”

RIA then focused on the negotiations asking for some of the details including the possibility of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout being included in the “exchange list” in the potential prisoner swap deal between the Russian and American authorities.

“I can say that the United States continues to discuss with the Russian authorities through special channels the issue of the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.  As we have already said, the United States has submitted a serious proposal for consideration. We finalized this proposal and offered alternatives. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has so far received no serious response to these proposals, ” the U.S. chargée d’affaires answered.

“However, I would like to emphasize that the main concern and the first priority of the U.S. Embassy is to ensure the well-being of the American citizens who are here. And the situation is not limited to the names of those who are mentioned in the media headlines — a number of American citizens are kept in Russian prisons. We are extremely concerned about the condition of each of them, and we continue to follow their affairs very closely and support them in every possible way,” she added.

RIA then asked: “What did you mean by ‘serious response’ from Russia? Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the negotiations are being conducted through professional channels … What does the American side mean by “serious response”?

Rood answered telling RIA; “I mean, we have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.”

“By ‘serious answer’ do you mean consent?” RIA asked in a follow-up question.

“I mean an answer that would help us come to an agreement,” she answered.

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