Ten years ago, a firestorm ignited in the LGBT community over a vote in the U.S. House that many transgender people remember vividly because it excluded them in favor of advancing employment non-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
The vote on the “gay-only” version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on Nov. 7, 2007, rocked the LGBT movement and prompted protests against the Human Rights Campaign and gay former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who backed the bill, arguing it was the best that could be done at the time. The 10th anniversary of the vote is Tuesday.
But the omission galvanized transgender rights advocates to such an extent that for the next 10 years the LGBT movement committed to moving forward only legislation that included the full community — both at the state and federal level — and today advancement of a sexual-orientation only bill is impossible to imagine.
Dana Beyer, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based transgender activist who’s running for state Senate in Maryland, said the vote on the gay-only version of ENDA was “a landmark” for trans inclusion in the LGBT movement.
“Whenever I discuss the progress that we’ve made, which has been remarkable, I begin there because that was basically the first real battle for the trans community on the national stage and over the succeeding decade, we’ve made incredible progress,” Beyer said.
Beyer added from that time forward after the creation of United ENDA — an unprecedented coalition of more than 400 organizations that emerged to fight against trans exclusion —there have been with few exceptions “no instances of any gay activism or legislation that did not include trans people.”
Rebecca Juro, a New Jersey-based transgender activist and radio show host, said the reaction to the vote on the sexual-orientation only version of ENDA was a significant turning point.
“The reason why Barney Frank was able to introduce and get the kind of support he did in Congress was because there was a feeling [of] who cares, nobody knows about these people,” Juro said. “What that did was it said, ’No, no, no,’ you’re wrong.’ and people are going to call you out and it’s going to cost you politically and people are going to show up at the Human Rights Campaign galas and make it difficult for you to solicit money for your campaign.”
In the year Democrats assumed control of the U.S. House after more than a decade of Republican majorities, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought the gay-only version of ENDA to the floor after Frank determined an initial version of the bill that included protections based on gender identity wouldn’t get a majority vote in the chamber.
That version of ENDA would pass on the House floor by a vote of 235-184. (Among those voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), although he also voted in favor of a motion to recommit that would have killed the legislation.)
Voting “no” on the legislation were 25 Democrats, many of whom — such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), former Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.) and former Rep. Michael Michaud (Maine) — rejected the measure on the basis it lacked protections for transgender people. Then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), now a U.S. senator and still the only out lesbian in Congress, proposed an amendment to insert gender identity, but withdrew the measure before it could come to a vote.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign at the time of the vote, backed ENDA and 10 years later stood by his decision as a means to develop the legislation, citing “no hope of passing any legislation into law” with George W. Bush as president.
“It was a tactical decision to take a step in the direction of getting what we ultimately wanted, which was maybe a non-inclusive bill in the House, and inclusive bill in the Senate that would end up as a fully inclusive bill or that would end up as a fully inclusive bill by the time Obama became president,” Solmonese said.
Recalling a “great deal of debate within the community and the House” about whether sufficient votes for transgender inclusion were present, Solmonese said lawmakers pledged to LGBT activists support for a trans-inclusive bill before, then told Pelosi not bring such a measure to the floor.
“They sort of wanted it both ways,” Solmonese said. “They knew what they were supposed to do, but they didn’t want to do it.”
Frank said the vote on ENDA was “very important” because it paved the way for legislative victories on hate crimes protections and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“One of the problems we’ve had historically — we don’t have it anymore — is members being afraid to vote for us because they thought they could be defeated, that it would be a tough vote,” Frank said. “So, here we had members voting for a bill that was a broad protections for LGB people and nobody lost because of it. That was very helpful in setting the foundation.”
In his book “A Life in Politics,” Frank recounts the deliberative process that went into bringing the gay-only version of ENDA to the House floor, maintaining Republicans would have sought to amend the bill to remove the transgender protections.
Baldwin disagreed with moving forward without transgender inclusion, Frank wrote, even though she ultimately voted for the bill. (Baldwin’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.)
“As we approached the final vote, Tammy did her own informal whip count and concluded we would have enough Democratic votes,” Frank wrote. “Speaker Pelosi, a strong supporter of the bill, asked Tammy for her count, checked it herself with the members, and decided that Tammy had been too optimistic — a conclusion that [former Rep. George Miller and I, based on our own work, fully agreed with. We did not have the votes for the inclusive-bill. It was sadly but unmistakably clear to Pelosi, Miller and me that we could pass ENDA only in its earlier form, covering only lesbian, gay and bisexual workers.”
Backing that move was the Human Rights Campaign, which continued to support the gay-only measure as one of five co-signers in a letter to Congress dated Nov. 6, 2007 organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights.
“With each significant step toward progress, the civil rights community has also faced difficult and sometimes even agonizing tradeoffs,” the letter said. “We have always recognized, however, that each legislative breakthrough has paved the way for additional progress in the future. With respect to ENDA, we take the same view.”
That vote sent a shockwave through the transgender community, which quickly marshaled opposition to the bill and protested any further advancement without their protections. Many angrily accused the Human Rights Campaign and Frank of abandoning the transgender community.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the vote was “one of the most important things that happened in the movement in the last 20 years.”
“We wanted everything to be about setting up for what the movement was after this vote happened, after the bill died for the year,” Keisling said. “What were the lessons the movement was going to learn, what was the lesson HRC was going to learn, what was the lesson Barney Frank was going to learn?”
The night before the vote, Keisling said, she received a call from Frank’s office and was informed “it was over” a for trans-inclusive version of ENDA. Together with Dave Noble, then policy director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, Keisling said she planned to write a letter to Baldwin in hopes she could influence the vote, but was told the gay-only ENDA would move forward.
That night, Keisling and Noble reached out to the National Center for Lesbian Rights and other groups to form a coalition against the trans omission. By morning more than 60 organizations had joined United ENDA, Keisling said, a coalition that refused to support the gay-only bill and pledged to work with lawmakers to support a trans-inclusive measure.
Keisling said other groups “were calling up slightly annoyed that they hadn’t been asked to sign on” and soon the coalition grew to several hundred members.
“It essentially was because Barney Frank and HRC had totally lost touch with what the community was,” Keisling said. “So they did not understand that this would not be alright with the community and we all found out very quickly in a matter of hours that it really was not, that the movement had really become an LGBT movement and it wasn’t going to fly to take trans people out. So not only were we against the vote happening, we were the leaders of being against the vote happening.”
The gay-only version of ENDA never reached Bush’s desk for his veto, nor did any version of the bill — trans-inclusive or otherwise — come up in the U.S. Senate even though Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.
Had ENDA been brought to the floor for a vote in the Senate, the sponsor would likely have been the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was one of the rare champions of LGBT rights at the time.
Solmonese said he didn’t immediately remember why ENDA never came up in the Senate and said it “may have had to do with timing,” but said Kennedy would only have moved forward with a trans-inclusive bill, not a gay-only ENDA, as part of the strategy for the House vote.
“He understood and supported the rationale of having an overarching strategy,” Solmonese said. “George Bush is the president. This thing’s not going to get passed into law. You do one version in the House, an inclusive version in the Senate, the leadership of both chambers is such that the conference committee would likely end up with something that was fully inclusive, right?”
Keisling, however, said “there was no Senate plan” because the Democratic majority in the chamber was seen as too marginal to advance ENDA, nor did Kennedy ever express an aversion to the gay-only version of the bill.
“The plan was that Barney Frank and HRC thought that it was worth passing the gay-only bill through the House, just move the ball forward and get members on the record as Barney said many times,” Keisling said. “Everyone else believed that since it would never become law that year, we shouldn’t exclude anyone.”
Do the backers of the bill at that time have any regrets? Solmonese acknowledged a few even though he stood by his decision to support ENDA in 2007.
“I regret that I saw it one way, which was a step in building towards what all of us ultimately wanted and by no means a signal that that was the legislation that anybody would ultimately support, but the fact that many people didn’t see it that way and many people simply saw the symbolism around the act as one that was divisive to the community, that was never the intention of HRC or my intention, but I certainly regret that that’s the way that it unfolded,” Solmonese said.
Frank said his “regret was we didn’t have the votes” when asked about his approach and blustered at the suggestion anything else could have been done.
“I think to do nothing at all — that was the argument, if you can’t include everybody, you can’t include anybody — in the first place, that’s not the history of the civil rights movement,” Frank said. “I voted to help protect African Americans and immigrants and women. The civil rights movement…you move as much as you can as soon as you can and you build on that. So do I regret not trying hard to get votes? No, I tried as hard as I could to get the votes.”
‘The pendulum is all the way the other way’
Over the course of 10 years since that vote, it’s hard to imagine Congress — or any other legislative body — passing legislation that excluded transgender people. Each successful version of ENDA introduced and advanced in Congress has been trans inclusive and its supporters have defended that language against any objection it. The Equality Act, the successor to ENDA that would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment and in all aspects of civil rights law, has consistently been trans inclusive.
Keisling said the commitment to trans inclusion among LGBT groups is “almost total.”
“Most of the big LGBT organizations, including the legal organizations, the lion’s share of their work now is trans work and, no, I don’t think any of them would intentionally do work to cut trans people out. In fact, there are times that we have to talk people into doing things because they’re afraid trans people will think it means cutting them out when it doesn’t. So, yeah, the pendulum is all the way the other way, and then probably some extra.”
Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, pointed to enactment of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and his boss’ support for the Equality Act as evidence of her support for trans inclusion.
“Leader Pelosi was proud to lead the Congress as speaker in passing a fully inclusive hate crimes bill signed into law by President Obama in October of 2009,” Hammill said. “A top priority for the leader is the Equality Act, comprehensive legislation to amend the Civil Rights Act and protect LGBT Americans from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex. The leader believes that this legislation would pass the Congress now should Speaker Ryan allow a vote.”
Times have changed for the Human Rights Campaign as well. In 2014, Chad Griffin, the current president of the Human Rights Campaign, apologized on behalf of his organization at the Southern Comfort transgender conference for having “done wrong by the transgender community in the past.”
Transgender work has become a major component of the LGBT group’s work. In recent years, the organization has opposed a gay-only non-discrimination bill in Michigan, worked to thwart the anti-trans House Bill 2 in North Carolina and successfully blocked an anti-trans bathroom bill in Texas. The organization has also opposed non-discrimination measures in Pennsylvania and Charlotte, N.C., without public accommodations protections, which were seen as a backdoor way of leaving out transgender people because of controversy over bathroom use.
Sarah McBride, who’s transgender and press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, said in the past 10 years the organization is “proudly and unequivocally continuing to fight for trans-inclusive protections” and will only back legislation that is fully inclusive.
“From Michigan to North Carolina to Birmingham, HRC has forcefully and aggressively blocked laws and policies that don’t protect every LGBTQ person from discrimination while fighting to extend robust protections across the country,” McBride said. “We are also working to accelerate the pace of progress in other ways, from raising the visibility of the transgender community, to incentivizing trans-inclusive healthcare through our Corporate Equality Index, to shining a spotlight on the epidemic of anti-transgender violence which is taking the lives of so many trans women of color.”
But 2007 wasn’t the last time there would be fighting within the LGBT community over ENDA. In 2013, major LGBT groups (again with the exception of the Human Rights Campaign) dropped support from a version of ENDA over the scope of its religious exemption, which would have provided leeway for religious institutions, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT workers in non-ministerial positions even if the bill were to become law. In a reversal from 2007, the Senate passed the legislation, but it didn’t come up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
Although ENDA has never become law, a growing consensus has emerged in the courts that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, also applies to anti-trans discrimination. Four federal appellate courts — the First, Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh circuit courts of appeals — have determined employment discrimination against transgender people is barred under Title VII, as has the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Keisling cautioned against too much reliance on laws against sex discrimination because “things are in flux,” noting U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ withdrawal of support for transgender protections under Title VII and President Trump’s appointment of anti-LGBT judges.
“We’re still convinced that the courts are on our side, cases and decisions have been building up to support us and actually [the idea] trans people are supported by sex discrimination is better supported than that gay people are,” Keisling said. “We just don’t exactly know how that’s going to maintain. We do know that there’s a handful of both sexual orientation and gender identity cases moving up through the court system, so what I say now might not be true a month from now and certainly will be changed somewhat in a year.”
Confidence in the legal landscape for trans protections under Title VII is at such a point that a pending petition filed by Lambda Legal before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a nationwide ruling for gay protections under the law, but not explicit trans protections, hasn’t registered as trans exclusion. The petition was filed on behalf of lesbian plaintiff Jackie Evans after the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against her.
Beyer said she’s not bothered by the petition and it should only upset transgender activists “who don’t bother to parse the specifics” and recognize the transgender victories in lower courts.
“We could have easily won [trans protections] nationwide first,” Beyer said. “In this case, sexual orientation has been viewed differently and most courts haven’t wanted to touch it until the Hively case in the 7th Circuit took it, and now we’ve got Evans. That’s beginning to change. I’m certainly not at all offended by that because this is the way you go. You have a case and the case can’t equally be broadened to include different classifications simply because the community would like it.”
The social scene, in contrast to advocacy groups and the legal landscape, may not be as advanced in accepting transgender inclusion despite the explosion over ENDA 10 years ago. Transgender rights advocates noted a distinction between the LGBT community at large in accepting transgender people and advocacy groups.
Beyer said she doesn’t see transgender inclusion at the social level “anywhere near as advanced” as the current legal landscape.
“Acceptance, affirmation in the general culture is one thing, but the fact that, say, 35 percent of Americans do know a trans person, doesn’t mean that people are that much more comfortable with trans people,” Beyer said. “I think on balance they are, but not overwhelmingly so.”
Efforts to resist trans inclusion in the movement on occasion still emerge, although they’re rare and don’t represent mainstream LGBT views. In 2015, a petition was posted on Change.org titled “Drop the T” urging major LGBT organizations to “disassociate themselves from the transgender movement and return to representing their base support of gay men and lesbians.” The petition, signed by 3,227 people, had no impact on transgender advocacy at LGBT groups.
But transgender advocates also saw a generational divide in the approach to trans inclusion on the social scene that meets what is now seen at the advocacy level.
Juro said college-aged LGBT activists just beginning to come into the movement have a much different view of trans inclusion than their LGBT elders.
“They’re all like, no, you cannot separate, we’re all in this together and trying to say we’ll get rights for gay people without trans people is unacceptable,” Juro said. “And our youth, let’s be honest, are the ones who are driving the community. There the ones who get out there with the signs and the marches. People my age, 55, and old farts, we’re not always as active as we used to be and these are the kids who are driving the movement.”
In some respects, the transgender movement has evolved in strength to take on challenges on its own. Just recently, the National Center for Transgender Equality formed a 501(c)(4) political arm and the Breakthrough Fund, a political action committee and offshoot of the Trans United Fund run by transgender activists, launched with the goal of electing transgender people to public office.
Beyer said the transgender movement is rising to the occasion now that transgender issues have become the focus after many victories on gay rights.
“I think the grassroots trans community has seized the initiative simply because after marriage, after Obergefell, it seemed like the air went out of the gay balloon,” Beyer said. “On a local level, there are still black trans women being murdered. There’s still difficulty getting jobs for many trans people, particularly the younger ones. So, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
With the LGBT movement changing dramatically, Keisling said “the LGBT movement is quickly becoming a trans movement,” and now she’s concerned “we’re sending signals to the gay community that trans work is more important than gay work.”
Nonetheless, Keisling cited concerns about insufficient trans presence in places where existing infrastructure is based on gay rights, such as states that have state LGBT equality groups, but no trans groups.
“That’s fine as long as the LGBT movement is strong, but after marriage, if the movement’s weakening…that means trans people don’t have enough support from the LGBT group because it’s weakening but they don’t have the ability to have a strong trans group because there’s an LGBT group,” Keisling said. “I think that’s a conversation we have to start having more explicitly.”
New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences
Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings
The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.
In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.
Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.
“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”
The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.
And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.
Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”
“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”
One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.
As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.
Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.
Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.
“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”
Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”
Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.
One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.
“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”
Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.
With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.
Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.
“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign
Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.
Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.
“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”
The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.
“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”
The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.
Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis
Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move
Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.
Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.
Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.
The full interview follows:
Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?
Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.
Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?
Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.
I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.
The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.
I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.
Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?
Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.
The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.
Blade: What will that look like?
Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.
Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?
Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.
We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.
That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help
Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?
Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …
They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.
But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.
Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”
Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.
I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.
Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?
Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.
Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?
Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.
I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.
Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?
Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.
Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?
Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.
Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?
Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.
Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.
Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.
I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.
Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?
Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.
Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —
Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.
And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.
That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.
So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.
Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.
There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?
Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?
Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.
A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.
Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.
Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.
Blade: That’s pretty succinct.
Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.
Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?
Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.
Blade: Wow, okay.
Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.
Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?
Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.
I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.
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