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Trans Lobby Day

Trans Lobby Day

Trans activist Melissa Sklarz reflects on lobby days past and the trans community's new message to the Senate on ENDA: just wait!

Last week, I went to Washington DC to lobby Congress as part of the National Center for Trans Equality annual lobby effort.

My first lobbying of Congress was in the mid 1990s with GENDERPAC. But once the Republicans took over Congress and set a new agenda and George Bush got elected, my lobbying presence in D.C. seemed irrelevant.

But last year, what is politely called a "fair-minded majority" took over in Congress and there seemed to be a place for progressive, urban, trans New Yorkers to speak out.

Back in the 20th century, most legislation at the Federal level was written as gay and lesbian only. A unified empowered trans community is a newish idea and so lobbying on behalf of that community is also new. After years of activists working to change gay and lesbian community to LGBT Community -- that is, to include trans people in the mosaic of queer life -- it became imperative that legislation be written to include gender identity and gender expression.

At first, the journey to change minds was difficult, as with all new ideas. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the lead gay and lesbian lobby group in D.C., was hesitant about the place of trans within their purview, and so work began to educate and inform. Finally, in 2004, HRC agreed that a unified LGBT community empowers us all and recommended to Congress that the two pro-equality bills in Congress -- Hate Crimes and the employment protection bill called ENDA -- have language changed to include gender identity and expression.

And so off we went, with a powerful message for inclusion and a new vision. The Democratic caucus agreed with our new ideas but were still the minority in 2004 and 2005. Progressive leaders and Rep. Barney Frank eventually changed the language to be trans inclusive and, when Congress changed hands in 2006, we were ready to go.

Lobby Day 2007 was glorious. We arrived with an upbeat message for the LGBT community, including trans people. But the climate on the Hill changed because of fear and lack of education and trans language was deleted again in October. Trans people hoped for an amendment for gender identity, but it never made it to the floor of Congress and ENDA passed the House without gender-identity protection.

The winter of 2007/08 was difficult as blame was assigned, new strategies died on arrival and the LGBT Community figured out where to go, with gays and lesbians moving forward and trans people talking about "the ick factor" of perceived trans realities.

In 2007, I visited as many NY Congresspeople as I could, including Charles Rangel, Louise Slaughter, Joe Crowley, and Carolyn Maloney. I figured these leaders would understand and tell the rest of the NY state Democratic Conference to support trans people in ENDA. However, when the vote came up, few Democrats felt compelled to vote against a gay bill on the floor of Congress and trans people were told that including rights for us jeopardized the new Democratic majority -- that it would be the fault of trans people if the Democrats lost their majority after 12 years in the minority. Yipes!!! What's a girl to do?

But five New Yorker representatives voted "no" anyway, in solidarity with trans rights: Jerry Nadler, Anthony Weiner, Ed Townes, Yvette Clarke, and Nydia Valasquez.

So what about 2008? The House has already moved on and away from trans inclusion. And the year has been dominated by the non-stop perpetual primary season. How does a small, virtually invisible minority get its voice heard and what does that voice say?

This year, we decided we would go to the Senate and speak with them. We would say "The ENDA bill is in the Senate. Do not move it. Wait until after the election." It's a simple message that would make sense, especially since President Bush is on record as having no interest in signing the ENDA bill into law. Our rationale: Why move a partial bill that will not become law when the promise for next year is so much better?

Now that we have a message, we need messengers. The 2008 lobby group seemed smaller than last year, and there were only 5 New Yorkers who came to DC: Pam Barres and Deb Oppenheimer from Rochester, Eileen Thomas from Long Island, Damon Hainline from Brooklyn and myself. I had made some calls before hand and was able to get an appointment with the office of NY Senator Hillary Clinton. This was wonderful, since Senator Clinton is a prominent supporter of an inclusive LGBT community and is one of three people who may be President next year.

We showed up early at 10:45 and we were asked whom we were meeting with. None of us were sure, and so I mentioned the name Tamera Luzzatto. The receptionist smiled and told us that was the Chief of Staff. We were shown in at 11:00 and met Tamera, along with Miguel Rodriguez, the Chief Counsel. Considering that in the past, I have spoken with 23-year-old interns who could not spell "transgender" much less have any working knowledge of the issue, this was to be a very different visit.

We sat and thanked them and explained our issue and told our stories. Of course, Senator Clinton was a sponsor of the original trans-inclusive ENDA, so we did not have to go back to square one. After politely listening, Mr. Rodriguez offered to call the office of Senator Kennedy to say "New York constituents are here to tell us not to move the ENDA bill this year."

What a simple sentence and a simple idea. Finally, we had our message. We don't have to explain the gay/trans split of ideas, the insider community contention on correct strategies, or delve into hurt feelings and unmet expectations. All we have to do is ask the Senate, "Just wait until next year." That's a concept any New York baseball fan can understand.

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Melissa Sklarz