Sometimes it's hard to keep a certain amount of journalistic distance on a story, especially if it affects you or people you care about in some way. For me, ENDA has been, and continues to be, one of those stories. Since going full time about ten and a half years ago, I've lost at least three jobs for reasons I directly attribute to anti-transgender discrimination, and I can't even begin to come up with a number for how many times I've not been hired for the same reasons. I'm essentially unemployed right now. All this has happened in New Jersey, bluest of the blue states. And oh yeah, we've got a state law protecting transpeople here, too. The problem is that in order for that law to even be potentially useful you have to get someone to hire you first, and all too often that's just the first of your problems in the workplace when you're visibly transgender.
Since I transitioned in 1997, it's not unusual for me to have been unemployed for significant stretches of time. Not because I can't work, not because I don't want to work, but because the fact that I'm different keeps getting in the way of actually being hired. While I can't say for sure, of course, with transgender unemployment estimates being what they are, currently between 50 and 70 percent nationally, I'd guess that my experience is probably pretty common. If that's what it's like for a lot of transpeople in the workforce in New Jersey, imagine what it's like for some of us in less enlightened areas of the country.
That's where a lot of my emotion around this story comes from. I know people who have been there and I have been there myself. I know what it's like not to know where my next meal is coming from or where and when, or even if, I would sleep that night. I know how easily it can all come tumbling down in short order when an income source suddenly dries up and a replacement can't be found in time. I know many of my transgender sisters and brothers are dealing with or have dealt with much the same issues for much the same reasons. Most of all, I know why we must demand that yesterday's vote be no more than a building block toward a fully inclusive ENDA , not a shamefully poor substitute for one. Of course, we don't actually know what will happen next, but I think we're in what I believe is a unique position to influence the outcome. Probably not a lot, mind you, but maybe, just maybe, enough.
United ENDA is the seed from whence it should spring. There needs to be a solid, reliable , coalition-type organization formed to lobby Congress on behalf of the entire LGBT community openly and honestly, a Leadership Conference on Civil Rights for truly inclusive, open, and honest civil rights legislative advocacy organizations, if you will. We need to replace HRC in the community spokes-organization slot. We need to have our own scorecard, to help LGBT voters make real, common-sense choices based on the principles of fairness for all, not just furthering the interests of a small group of self-involved millionaires funding and setting the political agenda of a single organization. And yes, we need to cut HRC completely out of the loop, especially for the immediate future. They simply can't be trusted to participate fairly and honestly, and everyone knows it.
The time to plan for 2009 is now. I've said that I believe Hillary Clinton will probably be our next President and thus far I haven't seen much happen to dissuade me from the correctness of that notion. For all my misgivings about what another Clinton Presidency would mean for progress in LGBT rights, I do expect that she'd sign any ENDA that made it to her desk. We have to keep up the lobbying, the media coverage, all of it...we can't let ourselves slip off the radar for too long. Most of all, we must make sure that we fully capitalize on every shred of guilt fair-minded Democrats were feeling as they voted for that crippled, non-inclusive bill. While that may sound cold, we can't afford not to do everything in our power to make certain that everyone is included in ENDA '09. If we miss that boat, it's gonna be a damn long time before gender-variant Americans get another chance to to even approach having basic civil rights in this country.
Most of all, our community needs to speak with bold, new, credible voices to those in power, community leaders who do not advocate political expediency and selfish personal agendas at the expense of that which is right, fair, and in keeping with real American values. We must reject the kind of top-down, "ivory tower" style of advocacy practiced by HRC and its allies and instead embrace the restructuring of the leadership of our movement to a model where the real decision-making power and the setting of agendas is placed in the hands of our entire community and its most skilled, dedicated, and inclusively-minded activists, not solely with the wealthiest and most well-connected, as has been the case until now.
Transparency must also be a hallmark of this newly restructured movement. It will take years, perhaps even decades, before some of the wounds opened here will ever have a chance to heal, and most of it is centered around issues of trust and dependability. The entire community, no matter what our political positions, social and economic statuses, or particular ethnic, racial, religious, gender,and sexual, labels we might define ourselves with, must have a certain, effective, and staunchly protected voice in how the issues that affect our lives are advocated for by our movement's chosen (key word) leaders. It will not do to simply replace one ivory tower with another. There must be a complete and thorough restructuring of how this community advocates its own interests to those in power and to the American public in general.
The Human Rights Campaign has intentionally and willfully abrogated its right to be credibly considered as the leading voice and advocacy organization of this movement. HRC knew the will of the community, and they made public promises to our community reflecting that understanding. Yet, the moment those promises were truly tested for the first time, HRC reneged on them, taking the low road of political expediency over the high road of principle to advance their own agenda at the expense of the poorest, most vulnerable, and most harshly oppressed victims of the kind of discrimination the passage of ENDA would seek to protect against.
In my opinion, that isn't real, honest, or credible LGBT community advocacy. A real advocate of any minority group shouldn't be willing to put the rights of any portion of its constituency on the chopping block in order to help gain rights for others, and they especially shouldn't be willing to trade away the rights of those most desperately in need of them in order to help ensure those selfsame rights for wealthier, more politically potent groups.We expect our advocacy organizations to stand against the will of politicians and others to divide and separate our community, not to help facilitate and validate doing so as HRC has done here. Call me an idealist if you like, but I just don't think this kind of behavior gives HRC or any of its allies the right to credibly speak on behalf of gender-variant Americans, or for anyone who really believes that civil rights should be the birthright of each and every American citizen, not just those belonging to the most politically popular and palatable groups.
In my opinion, HRC has now redefined itself not as an LGBT civil rights organization, but rather as what it actually is, the lobbying arm of a small but well-funded special interest group of rich, white, lesbian and gay millionaires who act and speak only on behalf of themselves and their own narrow, self-serving agenda. That is how their actions have defined them publicly, and it's how they should be seen and dealt with by the rest of the community as we move forward. HRC has proactively made its choices in this regard, and so too should the rest of us.
What we need now is a new movement, with a new agenda and a new way of advocating it, and a new level of involvement and influence in its leadership and advocacy for LGBT Americans at all levels of social and political influence and social strata. It's the only way things are going to change for the better in any real way, and the only way we won't find ourselves right back where we are now next time.
We can have all of these things, but only if we insist on them and work together to create them. I believe we can make it happen if we collectively acknowledge that we have indeed had enough of the way things have been until now and consciously choose to go another way, toward a path of liberty, justice, and true equality for all Americans, with no trade-offs, compromises, or selling out of those precious ideals, no matter how much political pressure is placed on us by politicians and others to do so. Not only is it the kind of movement LGBT Americans want and need, but it's the kind of movement we deserve and have a right to expect.
We can do better, far better, if we set our minds to making it happen, and I believe it's high time we did exactly that.