COMMENTARY: When a version of the long-standing federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act failed to move out of a House committee last year (in fact it has yet to pass), many of the bill’s proponents grew worried. But after The Hill reported in December that Speaker Nancy Pelosi privately assured skittish first-term Democrats that the House wouldn’t bring controversial bills to the floor this year unless the Senate acted first, worry turned into panic. Is ENDA dead for this congressional session? Will gender identity protections be cut from the bill again, as they were in 2007? Are our leaders selling us out?
The answers are far from simple. But ENDA isn't dead. Not yet. In my recent interviews for The Bilerico Project, Colorado representative Jared Polis and Wisconsin representative Tammy Baldwin confirmed that ENDA’s delay was attributable to the health care reform debate and that later this month the legislation will undergo markup (the process where a committee makes changes to existing bill language before voting on whether to send to the floor for final approval). Both said they'd spoken with Speaker Pelosi and Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller and were confident that the bill would receive a vote. Polis and Baldwin further asserted that removing gender identity language from the bill wasn't on the table.
The Senate, however, is another beast. As we've seen with the health care fiasco, the filibuster has become standard operating procedure for obstructionist Republicans. ENDA supporters need 60 votes in the Senate — a number they’ve yet to reach. Several activist groups, including United ENDA and transgender advocate Jillian Weiss's Facebook group, Inclusive ENDA, have been tracking the votes and show the absence of usually supportive Democrats like Indiana senator Evan Bayh.
If you don't think ENDA is as important as the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or other vital LGBT legislation, you may be missing the point. No state has won marriage equality without first passing an employment nondiscrimination law covering sexual orientation. What do marriage rights mean if you could be conceivably fired in a majority of states for having a photograph of your partner on your desk? Why would the military embrace a repeal of DADT if workplace discrimination is still permitted in many states?
While the health care debate swallowed most other political considerations late last year, we can't forget that the politicians arguing over abortion funding, “death panels,” and the public option are the same ones deciding the fate of ENDA.
These politicians who've botched, bungled, and obstructed something as basic as health care for all Americans are the same authorities the LGBT community has to rely on to pass ENDA. Politicians are never your friends; they are your employees. If we don’t keep pressure on them, we’ll see the antigay status quo hold firm.
Nudging politicians to effect positive social change is a mind-numbing chore, but there are ways to achieve our goal. How? It'll take more than sending canned action alert e-mails begging Congress to remember our plight, attending fund-raisers or White House parties, or endlessly lobbying already supportive legislators while ignoring those we need to enlighten. We need a more holistic approach that actually cures the ailment. With health care reform in mind, here are few prescriptions.
Keep Pressure on the Wound
If we want to stop ENDA from bleeding to death, we need to put enough pressure on politicians that they actively start working to save it. Instead of wringing our hands and worrying about what to do if it doesn't pass, we should have alarm bells going off across the country to get gays on their feet and into the streets again.
Is shoving a bit of cloth in a gaping wound to sop up the blood going to be enough to sustain a patient, or is it just a temporary measure until you can put on a tourniquet? By putting sustained pressure on Congress, we can keep ENDA alive until they do something about it. Our new leaders need to utilize traditional political means like phone calls, e-mail action alerts, lobbying, talking to friends and neighbors, and writing letters to the editor, while embracing social networking, guerrilla campaigns, and viral content like blog posts and videos, and organizing protests and sit-ins around the nation. The more we communicate the need for legislation like ENDA, the easier our job becomes.
Remember, the health care debate got derailed originally by a very vocal minority of teabaggers and right-wingers who had two things in common: a distrust of the government to adequately address their problems and enough voices railing about the subject that they couldn't be ignored.
Flex Our Muscle
The best defense is a good offense, of which the LGBT community woefully lacks — even with a liberal president in the White House. Our role is not to blindly support one party or the other, nor is it to refrain from criticizing our so-called political allies when necessary.
Republicans have bemoaned that health care reform would take attention away from the economy. “Jobs are the most important item on the agenda!” they exclaim, while gay activists are silent when it comes to a basic fact: Our continued employment is squarely a "jobs issue." Democrats claim they need to ensure their majorities in the November midterm election to advocate for us moving forward, and many of us quietly endorse their self-serving strategy. Why should we support their own continued employment on Capitol Hill, even as LGBT workers throughout the country continue to be threatened with the loss of their own jobs?
These double standards are particularly galling — and worthy of ridicule. The majority of Americans support nondiscrimination protections for gays, yet we give Congress a pass on its inability to pass popular pro-LGBT legislation. If we want ENDA signed into law before the end of the current congressional session, it's time to come out swinging with a multifaceted offensive strategy to demand our rights and portray our opponents as the buffoons that they are.
The success of the National March on Washington in October was incontrovertible proof that the power structure of the LGBT community is changing. After a handful of people said, "We should march on Washington," the message was broadcast louder by bloggers and the LGBT media. The result? More than 200,000 people descended on Washington, D.C., to march. Only a few dozen people did the gritty, hard work needed to produce an event of such magnitude, receiving minimal help from established gay organizations. In the process they discovered how much power the average gay American has in the new model for effective organizing. We need to harness the new grassroots power structure to truly win our civil rights. The top-down model has failed us.
Offer a Lollipop for Good Behavior
Kids don't get
excited when it's time to get shots and examinations (thus the candy
treat following at the end of a doctor’s visit). Politicians don't like
close examination either, and it's time we stopped offering them the
reward when they haven't done what we wanted yet.
In November, I
signed on to the “Don't Ask, Don't Give” boycott of the Democratic
National Committee because I don't think we should continue to throw
money down a pit with no tangible results. If you would normally give
to the DNC and want to make a political donation, give the money to a
proven congressional leader's campaign. Or if your legislator — whether
Democrat or Republican — isn't working on for our equality, give the
money to a challenger.
The flip side of this coin: You have to
give an actual treat when politicians measure up to our expectations.
That means giving them money, volunteering for their campaigns, and
helping out on other issues. Did a representative push for our civil
rights even though his pet cause is immigration reform? Then roll up
your sleeves and start advocating for immigration equality for LGBT
people. That way you help both causes.
If we want a fully
inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it's time to follow the
prescription for a cure instead of relying on snake-oil salesmen to
solve our problems for us. Now is not the time to treat the symptoms.
It's time to cure the disease.