Before Diego Sanchez came to Washington, D.C., he was a PR executive for Fortune 100 companies. "I introduced Diet Coke, which was an elation," he says, "and then I introduced 'new Coke,' which wasn't so hot." Sanchez, U.S. representative Barney Frank's new legislative assistant and the first openly transgender person to work in a federal congressional office, is charged with helping Frank pass an all-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- a bill that covers not just sexual orientation but gender identity as well -- in the first Obama Congress.
Seen in PR terms, the 2007 ENDA rollout was a new Coke-level fiasco. Deeply divisive among LGBT people, it was bruising for Frank, who was called a traitor for successfully backing a sexual orientation-only ENDA instead of losing with the previous trans-inclusive incarnation. While the bill passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 235 to 184, it will have to go before both the House and Senate in the new Congress. Sanchez says Frank didn't fail the transgender population. "He told us the truth at the time [that the bill wouldn't pass with transgender protections], and it didn't feel good, but that's what he does," Sanchez says. "At the end of the day it's all about a vote. All the desire in the world doesn't make law."
Frank, who is quick to credit Sanchez's "high intelligence and great political skills," says his new aide's trans status will be an advantage. "The best antidote to prejudice is reality, and Diego will be a very real presence," Frank says. "One of the things I like about Diego is [that] he's cool and can handle this."
That composure is a by-product of a killer resume. Sanchez learned his way around Capitol Hill as PR director for Washington, D.C.'s AIDS Action Council, a post he held concurrently at the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts back in Boston -- where he lived until Frank summoned him to D.C. full-time late last year. Sanchez has also been a major mover for the Human Rights Campaign and other gay and civic organizations.
Sanchez, 52, is seen by many as a symbol of transgender visibility and inclusion. But some activists have already voiced worry that he is being used as a token -- that his hire may serve as a substitute for all-out action on a trans-inclusive new ENDA.
Sanchez laughs that off, saying, "Fear and worry don't resonate with me." He'll have a lot on his plate besides ENDA. His responsibilities under Frank also include overseeing health care, labor, veterans' affairs, and the U.S. Census. Census issues will strike close to home, as Frank plans to sponsor a revision to the form so that same-sex couples can be recognized as families; Sanchez notes that he and Frank have discussed the problem that same-sex couples are not identified in the national count, which is used to administer federal funds.
Movement on ENDA may take place in the fall, Frank and Sanchez indicate. "I know that the congressman's objective is to have an inclusive ENDA," Sanchez says. "It's my job to do everything I can to make sure more people understand why transgender people deserve to be viewed and treated and respected as equal human beings."