February 29, 2008
Rethinking the gay agenda
Posted by: Chris
Picking up on my post yesterday about the continuing grief the Human Rights Campaign is getting from transgender activists, I want to highlight something those protesting outside the New York black-tie dinner. The motley crue of trans activists, Radical Homosexual Agenda and such were holding signs shaped like giant hands -- except rather than signalling "we're No. 1!" they were giving HRC "the finger." Mature.
The chant was likewise a meaningful: "What do we want? Liberation! Fuck that assimilation!" Almost self-fulfilling, that one; and so retro as well. I guess every fashion trend does come round for another go.
Among the more sober-minded of the 50 or so protesters were some members of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club. According to a report in Gay City News, Allen Roskoff, a member of the group, raised a more thoughtful objection to Barney Frank's gay-only Employment Non-Discrimination Act:
"Jim Owles is asking members of Congress not to support ENDA in any form," he said. "We should revert to the effort originated by Bella Abzug and Ed Koch to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression."
Abzug and Koch, as Manhattan representatives in Congress in the early 1970s, introduced the 1964 Act amendment as a way to give gays and lesbians nondiscrimination protection in housing, credit, and public accommodations, in addition to employment. Years later, HRC and Frank originated the more limited ENDA approach to getting anti-bias legislation through Congress.
Roskoff pointed out that Bill Bradley, in his 2000 challenge to Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, suggested amending the Civil Rights Act, rather than adopting ENDA, "but was shot down by Barney Frank and HRC."
I wouldn't agree with that change in "gay agenda" priorities, but I do agree that the divisive scrap over ENDA highlights the need for the movement to rethink it's federal legislative plan. It’s critically important that we –- gay and lesbian Americans –- set that agenda, rather than having it dictated to us by the Democratic Party, no matter who is in the White House.
Politics is by nature self-serving, and politicians from both parties will always reach for the low-hanging fruit unless pressured to actually risk some political capital. That’s actually been the strategy of the movement’s leaders as well, at least since 1996.
That’s when they scrapped Bella Abzug's broad gay rights legislation and replaced it with ENDA.
The idea was that polls showed the public most sympathetic to someone being fired for being lesbian or gay, and it was important to get some –- any –- federal gay rights law on the books. And it almost worked. The Senate came within a vote of passing ENDA, and Bill Clinton was certainly ready to sign it.
More than a decade later, it’s past time to reexamine whether ENDA should still be at the top of the gay agenda for Congress. For one thing, states and local governments have gone a long way to bridge the gap. Today, more than half the U.S. population lives in areas where non-discrimination laws include “sexual orientation,” and the dramatic changes in the culture in the last 10 years have made discrimination far less common in the other half of the country as well.
In addition, the difficult and divisive debate last fall about what to do if the votes aren’t there for including “gender identity” in ENDA means that legislation is no longer the most likely to break the barrier on federal gay rights legislation. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, which includes gay and transgender protections and has already passed both houses of Congress in different forms, and in terms of popularity is really “the new ENDA.” With a gay friendlier Congress and White House, the hate crimes bill should become law fairly quickly and without much controversy. But a divisive and risky ENDA shouldn’t be next on the list.
The highest legislative priorities of the movement ought to be redressing where the government itself is discriminating against lesbian and gay Americans – especially when that unequal treatment is widespread, affecting almost all of us and in a significant way.
Measured that way, the next priority ought to be repealing the Defense of Marriage Act –- at least the portion that blocks federal recognition of valid marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples by the states. Repealing DOMA should be accompanied by a bill that treats state-issued civil unions and domestic partnerships like marriages under federal law as well. Two-thirds of the public already supports gay marriage or civil unions, so the support is already there.
Marriage is certainly more universal than job discrimination. More than 90 percent of Americans get married at some point in their lives, and given the hefty number of gays in that remaining 10 percent, it’s safe to say almost all of us will enter into a committed, long-term relationship at some point in our lives.
Workplace regulation, however justifiable, faces non-bigoted objections about the government intruding into the private sector. Even libertarians who are broadly supportive of gay rights object to ENDA on this ground.
It’s also true that many more gay and lesbian Americans would marry, if they could, than are fired from their jobs due to their sexual orientation. And while it’s relatively easy to get another job in the diverse U.S. economy – or move to a state that has gay workplace protections -– the hundreds of legal rights that come from federal recognition of our relationships are irreplaceable.
(Photo of HRC protest via Gay City News)
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