“Oh, Grow Up!” — By Eric Marcus
October 16, 2007
Barney Frank has been championing federal gay rights legislation for more years than a lot of gay activists have been alive. Now, with the prospect of ENDA’s (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) passage in the House threatened by those representatives who don’t support the same employment protections for transgender people, Frank has split the legislation in two in order to save it. Gay people get one bill. Transgender people get the other. It’s no secret that the second bill won’t be acted on this year, but the first bill stands a very good chance of passing in what would be a landmark vote.
So why would leaders of 280+ gay rights organizations line up like members of Putin’s parliament and urge Frank to go back to the original bill and embrace virtually certain defeat? Because they seem to have learned nothing from past experience about how the political system works, even when there are examples in our own movement of how things get done in the real world.
Here in New York City more than three decades ago, Jean O’Leary (the powerhouse gay rights leader who rose through the ranks to take the reins at the National Gay Task Force in 1974) faced the challenge of structuring a gay rights bill that would pass. As she told me when I interviewed her for my book, Making History, “Early on, the transvestites wanted to be included in the bill as a protected group. Politically, we had to say, “This doesn’t work. We are never going to get the bill through the City Council… What it came down to was pragmatism: doing what you had to do to keep the issue moving ahead…” (I realize that transvestites and transgender people are not the same, but we’re still talking about gender identity.)
As we all know, it was years before the gay rights bill passed in New York City and years more before the protections were extended to include gender identity. But it happened over time. The important lesson to take from that experience, something Jean knew and practiced, is that with all or nothing politics you get nothing.
Was it painful to take the incremental approach? For Jean and lots of other people it was, but Jean was right. And now, all these years later, when our allies in Congress need us on their side, lots of gay rights leaders are dead wrong. They may argue that the fate of the current federal legislation is irrelevant because the vote on ENDA is largely symbolic—even if the Senate joined the House there’s no way the president would sign such a bill—but symbolism is important in the long term.
As Barney Frank told The New York Times, “An announcement that this new Democratic Congress led by a woman who has been as committed to full rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in every aspect of her career, that she had to kill a gay rights bill and couldn’t do anything at all would, I think, be the most negative message we could send.”
So the message we send when a coalition of gay groups goes after Barney Frank is that we don’t understand the system, that we don’t have the maturity to work with Congress, and that we don’t know how to support the people who have worked against all odds to keep our agenda moving forward.
It’s taken a long time and a lot of effort for public support for gay people to reach the point where a majority of House members could even come close to voting in favor of an anti-discrimination bill. What is wrong with accepting the fact that the public isn’t there yet when it comes to supporting a bill that addresses the rights of transgender people? Their fight is comparatively new and a lot more effort has to go into educating Americans about transgender people before there’s any hope of passing legislation that addresses discrimination based on gender identity. Their time will come.
Compromise is not abandonment, it is not defeat, it is not criminal. It’s the way things work. And the gay rights leaders who are taking Barney Frank to task for doing the best he can at this moment in time are squandering political capital that we can ill afford to waste and betraying a steadfast ally who deserves better.
Not everyone will agree with me on this, but for those who do, there’s something you can do: write to Barney Frank and voice your support for his compromise bill. Barney Frank doesn’t have direct e-mail, but I spoke with Marisa Greenwald at his office and she said she would print your e-mails and give them to him. So here’s her address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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