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Ten LGBT activists were arrested Thursday after 19 people staged a bi-coastal sit-in at the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., offices of House speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act be brought to the House floor for a vote by the end of March.
Four of the eight activists in the D.C. office and six of the 11 in San Francisco were arrested. Members of the S.F. contingent were eventually fined $125 each and released Thursday afternoon, according to one of the protesters, Kip Williams. The D.C. protesters were charged with unlawful entry, released late Thursday evening on their own recognizance, and have a court date set for April 6, according to Paul Yandura, one of the coordinators the protest.
The activists, who were organized by GetEqual.org, went to Pelosi's offices at about 4 p.m. EST where they had previously scheduled meetings with her staff members. Once inside, they told staffers they would not leave until either the Speaker agreed to a vote or they were arrested.
"We understand that Speaker Pelosi and the rest of Congress are in the midst of passing health care reform legislation," said a statement from Robin McGehee, an organizer of the action who was arrested at the White House earlier on Thursday protesting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "However, health care for many LGBTQ families is intimately connected to employment protections and we cannot wait a minute longer for those protections. We've already waited far too long."
Transgender individuals can be fired in 38 states simply for being trans and gays can be fired in 29 states simply for being gay with no legal recourse. No federal law currently provides employment protections to LGBT people.
ENDA would add those protections and many activists believed the legislation would likely pass within the first or second year of President Barack Obama's administration. But the effort appears to have stalled, with the bill awaiting a committee vote in both the House and the Senate. In the House, 198 members have signed on to the measure and chief sponsor Rep. Barney Frank said he is still hoping for a committee vote by month's end.
"I'm pushing for it, it may slip a little -- part of it is that health care keeps slipping," he said.
A spokesperson for Speaker Pelosi, whose district has a sizable LGBT population, would not say whether Pelosi would meet with the activists or respond to their demands.
"The Speaker believes passing ENDA is a top priority and hopes that we can bring ENDA up as soon as possible," said Drew Hammill. "That being said, the right time to bring the measure to the floor will be when we have the votes.
But McGehee said she was willing to risk a loss on the House floor. "Once the vote is called, we will know who our opposition and who our allies are," McGehee told The Advocate during an interview on Wednesday. "Not until we see the vote do we really know where we need to be applying pressure.
Photo By Omar Clarke: (from left) Jay Cariomna, Shannon Cuttle, Sam Ames, Michelle Wright, and Chaz Kirven stage a sit-in in Pelosi's DC office. Cuttle was the only one not arrested.