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After ENDA

After ENDA


On November 7 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- a formerly LGBT rights bill that was stripped of the T in the belief that that would make it an easier sell. Transgender activist and former Human Rights Campaign board member Donna Rose assesses the cost of that strategy and talks about picking up the pieces.

As a leader in the transgender community I feel it appropriate to acknowledge the historic passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. House of Representatives on November 7. By a vote of 235-184 it sends a clear message that discrimination in our workplaces will not be tolerated.

For many, however, this is bittersweet news. Rights for some gained at the expense of rights for others is not something to be celebrated. Indeed, to acknowledge that those who need these protections most are left on the outside looking in is to accept that some part of our humanity has been sacrificed.

In a very real sense the soul of the LGBT community is crying today. It has been torn from the inside out. It laments that people whom others identify as not being "masculine" or "feminine" enough for whatever reason again stand on the outside looking in. It recognizes that others don't make the same alphabet-soup distinctions of G, L, B, or T that we do -- that we're all one and the same -- and it sees the connection between workplace discrimination, schoolyard bullying, personal harassment, and physical violence that so many of us face day in and day out. It's fearful at the message this partial protection sends -- that some are worthy while others are not. Some call that incremental gain. I call it selective injustice. To tolerate injustice in any form is to believe there are degrees of equality. There are not.

There are those who have approached ENDA with a "win at all costs" agenda for any number of reasons. The fact that our community is left fragmented, that people are hurting right now, that "friends" have betrayed friends, that trust is gone, that credibility is in short supply -- all for the sake of a symbolic victory -- raises serious questions about the "moral character" of supposed civil rights leaders in our community. It didn't need to happen this way. Still, I choose to cherish my naivete, and I continue to believe that how you get to your destination is more important than the destination itself. By that count this mad dash to the finish line has been a miserable failure, as the trail of debris has undone years of effort. In many ways we are back to square one again. That is not progress.

I continue to hear promises of "tomorrow." I hear promises that we are not forgotten, that there is more work to do, that this is simply a stepping stone, that our "friends" won't rest until workplace security for all becomes a reality. But over these past few days and weeks promises have been made and promises have been broken so nonchalantly and without regard to consequence that trust and faith are in short supply right now. We have been collectively victimized, traumatized, and dehumanized by people and organizations whose cruel actions belie their conciliatory words. Rather than falling wounded by enemies from outside, we had this done to us by "friends" who had asked for and been given our trust. Betrayal? Despicable? Immoral? You choose the words that fit. As advocates for human rights we need to expect better than that from one another, and from ourselves.

There are those who have argued that this process of incremental gain is simply the way that civil rights are historically gained in this country. Maybe so, although that's far too convenient an excuse for all that has happened. I continue to lament the fact that the force and energy that went into achieving this partial victory was never given to achieving full equality. Some say that the votes weren't there. Perhaps. I'd argue that the faith was never there to get the votes in the first place. At a time when we needed true leadership and courage what we got was effective politicking, but at a horrendous cost. The two are not the same.

I cannot thank our friends on Capitol Hill enough. I watched events unfold on November 7 and wished I could have reached across the TV and hugged those who spoke so passionately and so forcefully for us and who obviously understand the underlying moral nature of this legislation. I cried more than once, and although I find myself physically and emotionally spent today, I still feel buoyed by the hope for tomorrow. Many of us never imagined we'd see a day when our lives and our issues were discussed in such a hallowed forum. We can only hope that promises made are promises kept, and that the energy of yesterday turns into action of tomorrow.

Today is not a day of celebration. It is a day of healing. Our strong emotional responses need to be respected as part of an overall grieving process, not dismissed or trivialized or forgotten. For many of us this is personal, and as Barney Frank so eloquently demonstrated during his debate remarks, the personal nature of it is laden with emotion. Our emotions are our humanity, and the true measure of our dedication to this mission of equality that we all share will be to reengage somehow and to move forward. We'll be stronger for what has happened. We'll be smarter. In short, it's time to ensure that tomorrow is better than today -- not for some of us but for all of us and for generations that follow.

The transgender community is not the weak, sorry stepchild of the GLB community as some would portray it to be. Gender variance is a rich and broad community of communities that is only now finding its heart and its voice. It is a community based on courage, authenticity, and compassion. None of that has changed. If anything, that has been reinforced by recent events.

Although the political process has run its course for the moment, the work that needs to be done transcends politics. Hearts and minds across this country need to realize that to express our gender in unique or different ways is in no way a sign of moral corruption, weakness of character, mental illness, deviancy, confusion, or any other condition that would diminish our right or ability to live a happy, fulfilling life. So rather than wallow in the disappointment of abandonment by those who it appears were never really with us in the first place, it is incumbent upon us to celebrate the resiliency of our spirit, the support of our true friends, and to move forward together.

Additional personal reflections on the ENDA aftermath available on The Mourning After at

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Donna Rose