Rebecca Juro

Transgender Inclusion Goes Mainstream

Filed By Rebecca Juro | July 07, 2008 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Congress, Democrats, ENDA, HRC, politics, San Francisco

If there's anything you can count on the city of San Francisco for when it comes to LGBT rights and community support, it's that even when they're not on the very leading edge of something, they'll still do it bigger, better, and more fabulously than anywhere else. New York, Philadelphia, and several other major cities have had protests and demonstrations against the Human Rights Campaign at their local fundraising events, but what's waiting for HRC in San Francisco on July 26th, when they hold their next fundraising dinner in that city, is likely to make the rest look like a warmup act.

The "Left Out" protest/counter-party, organized by Pride at Work and local area organizations, will take place outside the hotel where the HRC dinner is being held and is expected to draw more attendance than the HRC event itself, featuring appearances by celebrities and political figures who are loudly and publicly shunning the HRC event.

When the most popular and well-respected political leaders in the city considered to be the Queer Mecca of the US are describing the largest "LGBT" civil rights organization in the country as "human rights cowards" and promising not only not to support them or attend their functions, but also to support those who oppose the Human Rights Campaign and their agenda, you know that the tide has indeed finally turned, that treating gender-variant people as equals and as an inextricable part of the LGBT community both socially and politically is an ideal that has evolved over the last couple of decades and especially over the last few years from merely wishful thinking and the rare attempt at inclusion to now being popularly considered a basic tenet of modern Queer activism. Transgender inclusion has gone mainstream in Queer America, and is now an integral part of the cultural and political identity of this community.

Where once most of the gay men and lesbians leading this movement acted selfishly, preferring to seek advantage only for those like themselves, and the community passively supported whatever path they chose, HRC's behavior in regards to ENDA now has enraged so many in the greater LGBT community across the board that another faction in our community has begun to assert itself for the first time, one made up of staunch progressives who believe in not only tolerance and acceptance, but also in proactive and aggressive social and political action, in concert with an unshakable belief in full inclusion and in acting inclusively.

When we step back and look at this situation with a little perspective, it seems likely that the biggest mistake HRC and the Democratic House leadership made in dealing with transgender inclusion in ENDA wasn't made behind a podium at Southern Comfort or even when Barney and friends stripped us from the bill. Chances are, their real mistake was that these folks made a bet and they lost, bigtime.

In 2004, Transgender-Americans were, politically speaking, a joke. I can say this because I was there; I saw and heard it firsthand. I heard representatives of the LGBT outreach team of the Kerry campaign tell me and a team of transgender activists and supporters I'd assembled to meet with the campaign to discuss how we could help Kerry become President that even though they considered us part of the team and wanted us to do all we could to help get Kerry elected, neither the campaign nor the candidate would even do as little as publicly recognize the existence of transgender Americans, much less subscribe to the idea that civil rights are for all of us.

We were similarly ignored in the media. Virtually all of the queer community media of the time, both in and out of the mainstream, was almost exclusively geared toward the interests of gay men and lesbians, usually with only a passing nod at best to transgender people and the issues relevant in our lives. The protests leading up to HRC's original promise in August of 2004 only to support inclusive federal legislation from then on garnered only a smattering of mainstream community media attention. In fact, really the only places to find reliable and up-to-date news and information on topics and issues relating to transgender and gender-variant people then was in media specifically targeted toward us.

Given these realities, it wasn't very surprising when most of the greater LGBT community responded to the events of 2004 with little more than a collective yawn. I suspect that HRC and the House leadership were betting that going with a non-inclusive ENDA would elicit much the same response from the community in 2007 and, because upcoming elections are always a consideration in politics, 2008. They gambled on being able to just slip it by most of the community with nary a ripple of complaint from the mainstream, where HRC and the Democrats are most concerned about protecting their public images and reputations. Fortunately for transgender and gender-variant Americans, the vast majority of the LGBT community and our allies would have absolutely none of it.

In a lot of ways, politicians, at least the good ones, can be like telltales on a ship, indicating through their actions and behavior exactly where their constituency is on a given issue. The choice of many of these pols to stand with those opposing HRC and, by extension, the Democratic House leadership, in regards to the way they've dealt with ENDA is a powerful and courageous statement, but also one that seems to become easier and easier for politicians to make as time goes on. This suggests that transgender and gender-variance inclusion and support are currently making quantum gains in popular and political support, probably in large part because this drama is now being played out on so large, loud, and public a stage.

The irony here is almost palpable. In a very real way, it's HRC and the House Dems themselves who created this monster. Through their actions, by acting in a way that they apparently didn't realize would be seen as arrogant and morally reprehensible by the vast majority of the American LGBT and progressive communities, the issue of equal rights and treatment for transgender and gender-variant people has gone from a barely-mentioned side issue in many Queer and progressive spaces to a cause célèbre in cities across this country. If you'd told me in 2004 we'd be seeing politicians forgoing HRC dinners and publicly speaking out against the organization in support of transgender rights and inclusion in 2008, I'd have thought you insane. I don't think we could have ever accomplished all this so quickly on our own.

I also believe that the real game-changer here in the minds of many has not been simply what these people did to us in regards to ENDA, but also the blatant disrespect and arrogance exhibited by the Human Rights Campaign and their friends in Congress in doing so. I think that resonated with many LGBT's, friends, allies, and supporters, inspiring many in this community to examine whether or not they who may have been persecuted themselves or had witnessed anti-LGBT discrimination directed at a friend or loved one, were comfortable with seeking to escape that injustice at the expense of others who are even more harshly oppressed.

Of course, this is a very good thing. Equally obvious, however, is that we currently have no idea at all if this will have any relevance whatsoever as to whether or not we'll see an inclusive ENDA (or ENDA replacement) in the next Congress. We can speculate all we want, but the real truth is that there's just no way to even have a clue as to what might actually happen until those votes are all counted in November. If the Dems do win in a landslide, that which was once considered possible and then impossible may suddenly become possible once again. If this past week's hearing is any indication, there are at least some members of Congress who are actively hoping to take advantage of that potential scenario.

As more progressives come to understand the discrimination faced by transgender and gender-variant people, more decide to help and declare their support for treating us fairly. We all thought it would take years, maybe even decades longer for it to happen, but it's not, it's happening right now. Support for transgender rights is rapidly becoming every bit as much a mainstream issue in some quarters now as support for gay and lesbian rights is or ever has been, particularly in places where gays and lesbians are already relatively well-protected from discrimination. We may not have completely caught up yet, but we're covering the ground between us far more quickly than anyone could ever have reasonably predicted. We're still racing forward at breakneck speed in terms of increasing understanding and acceptance, and we've been consistently doing so even during times when the American political climate has been its most aggressively anti-gay in modern memory.

I'm no less cynical today about the motives of politicians and selfish political advocacy organizations than I've ever been, but I also acknowledge that a smart politician is one who knows when it's time to get on the popular side of an issue, and when it's time to stand up and speak out on what they really believe. It's become pretty clear what most of the LGBT community, and therefore many of the politicians seeking to court the queer vote, believe the right side of this particular issue is and they're moving toward it faster than a superdelegate on June 4th. I believe that we can take the lack of attendance at these HRC events and last week's Congressional hearing as signs that the politicians are not only ready to listen, but also that an ever-increasing number of them are finally ready to act.

It's also important to remember that there's another reason why this particular event is significant as well. San Francisco contains the home district of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. In the past, Pelosi has been able to depend on the LGBT community to rally behind her in support of her candidacy at election time. Call it a hunch, but I don't think that same level of LGBT community support will be forthcoming for Pelosi and her campaign this time around.

This was a huge gamble for HRC and the Dems, and so, just as correspondingly huge a loss. The Human Rights Campaign is now a community pariah, their brand and their reputation all but completely discredited in much of the community and obviously in many political circles as well, especially in the major cities where most of the queer money is. House Democrats have been coming under relentless fire from LGBT media and activists for passing a non-inclusive ENDA. It has quite literally become cool, hip, and cutting edge in LGBT and progressive circles to support transgender rights and to speak out against HRC and those in Congress who support non-inclusive civil rights legislation. Suddenly, we're the new black.

I strongly suspect that part of the motivation for holding last week's hearing in Congress was to signal to the transgender community and our allies that we haven't been forgotten. No doubt many Congressional Democrats are well aware of the public flogging HRC has been receiving from the LGBT community over ENDA, and at least some of them have experienced a taste of it themselves. With the election looming ever closer, the Democrats would like nothing better than to unite us all as one big happy Queer nation, under Obama, with liberty and justice for...well, nobody really.

It's not going to happen. Not this year. There's a new Queer Agenda© in effect now, one that doesn't compromise on fighting bigotry and discrimination in the workplace, and most especially one that reflects the will of the vast majority of politically-conscious LGBT Americans and not that of just a handful of mainly ultra-wealthy white gay men. Congress knows it, and HRC knows it too, whether they want to admit it or not. The days when you could treat transpeople like crap and not have it be seen as a reprehensible thing by most Americans are over. It seems we've crossed that line for virtually all of the LGB community and probably for most of modern America, and we can thank HRC, Barney Frank, and all the rest of the Democrats who went ahead with a non-inclusive ENDA despite the community outcry not to do it for pushing progressive public opinion over the line by highlighting and modeling the kind of unjust exclusion and discrimination transgender and gender-variant people face every day.

That's right, you heard me. We have HRC and the incrementalist Dems in Congress who voted for the crippled, non-inclusive ENDA to thank for the surging support for transgender rights in our community and probably in our country overall, at least in part. Ain't that a kick in the ass? Stranger still is the fact that we have to thank them for modeling bad behavior, thus rallying the community to our cause in droves to organize and fight against them and their elitist agenda.

Regardless of how we got here though, we're here. We've made it. Transgender and gender-variant people are a bonafide American minority now, recognized as such not only by progressive Democrats like Barack Obama, but also by the United States Congress. If there's any true sense of actual progress made to be had from last week's hearing, perhaps that's it. It's what we asked from Kerry and the Democrats in '04 and were basically told to piss off.

So what does it all mean in the long term? The first thing it means is that we need to do everything we can to make damned certain that Barack Obama is elected President. The second thing it means is that it's highly likely that what we're seeing now is damage control. Congressional Democrats are wondering how they should respond, both when they get their own HRC dinner invitation and when (if) the question of transgender inclusion is called next year. They are, to be blunt, coming to terms with the fact that they misjudged the situation so completely and fucked this up so badly that it's a tactical blunder worthy of the Bush Administration, and they're trying to fix it after the fact as best they can.

What I'm hoping is that this hearing was a set up for an inclusive "reboot" of the whole ENDA legislation next year, be it a revamping of the bill itself or the introduction of a completely new piece of legislation. It would probably be the best way to put the past behind us as quickly as possible and bring the battle for transgender inclusion and its attendant political fallout to an end, or, at least a quieting, until the next battle lines are drawn.

It's working. This is how we'll all win together. Slowly. Steadily. Definitely. It may take a little longer and require a little more work to get there, but more people than ever before think it's worth the effort. I'm still not yet convinced that anything has changed in any real way as far as ENDA is concerned, but at the same time, I'm more convinced than ever that the possibilities of something, maybe even a lot of things, changing for the better in the relatively near future is both real and worth fighting for.

For years we complained that no one was listening.

They're listening now.

Let's give 'em an earful.

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Unlike the 1999 and 2004 betrayals, they couldn't spin their way out of this mess because of the smoking gun YouTube video of Joe Solmonese promising that HRC wouldn't abandon transgender people.

The GLBT blogosphere also deserves credit for keeping the issue alive and galvanizing resistance to SPLENDA and publicizing the HRC dinner protests. We also had transgender bloggers explaining the history of the HRC-transgender community drama and highlighting the fact that this was a consistent behavior pattern over a decade for HRC and Frank, and not a legislative tactical maneuver.

Also telling our stories in our various blogs also got it out there that cutting transpeople out of ENDA had real consequences for flesh and blood people.

Call it a learning curve.

Seriously, scrap ENDA and add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity and expression" to the Civil Rights Act. Voila, we'll have a lot more protections than the ENDA provides and we'll be on the same page in terms of case law.

But you're right - HRC did take a risk that no one would care. But they were wrong.

Edward Fox Edward Fox | July 13, 2008 9:16 PM

While the original gaffe was to throw transgender people under the bus, HRC compounded it by thumbing their nose at the whole community. It was in character, but it came as a shock to some people who had not been listening. HRC is more concerned with their influence on the Hill, than with the community--they are sure that they know best--and had no sense that United ENDA was something they should respect. I believe that if they had backed down in the end, they might still be raising money.

The two errors go together; you had to be pretty tone deaf to believe that you could sacrifice transgender members of the community, to believe that the GLBT community in 2008 would accept "equality" for some, and if you were that tone deaf, you probably could not realize that ignoring the united demands of the community would be counterproductive fund-raising-wise.

A couple of years ago, when Indianapolis was fighting for an inclusive Human Rights Ordinance, I was at the meetings of very many GLBT groups when politicians reported that it might be easier to pass the ordinance in a non-inclusive version. They wanted instructions. I was very proud that each group responded in exactly the same way. There was no discussion of the risks. There was just enough time (about seven seconds) to indicate sober reflection, rather than thoughtless reaction; then the verdict: "Not so much"; "Absolutely not." I never heard the issue discussed again.

Indianapolis, with a very fine, inclusive, Human Rights Ordinance, thanks to a bi-partisan effort, is a far better place than many people realize, but it is still in Indiana, in the Heartland, the Bible Belt. And if HRC, in 2008, in Washington, could not realize how strong the resolve in the community, so clear years before in Indiana, was that "no one is equal, unless all are equal", they are sadly out of touch, and, thus, dangerous.

On the subject of Nancy Pelosi, a couple of months ago I heard that she had been sat down and told a few home truths by the GLBT groups in her district. If there is one member of congress who can be seriously threatened by such groups, it is probably her. I wonder if she can hear.