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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Monday, August 22, 2011

A 'T Party' in Our Community?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date in which the letter “T” for transgender was added to the GLB or LGB to form the now familiar LGBT. All indications are that it occurred during the 1990’s with no ceremony or official announcement that I can recall. It just showed up, and became a regular part of the acronym as activists seemed to accept it.

There wasn’t a major pushback from purists who wanted to keep the gay rights movement restricted on the basis of sexual orientation. Some did argue, however, that there should be separate movements as transgender individuals have different issues from those who are gay or lesbian. Or that this addition was another example of unnecessary political correctness.

While transgender folks and gays/lesbians are distinct (one is sexual identity while the other is sexual orientation), these arguments did not signal a demand to separate. And over the past two decades the groups kind of melded into a broader force to achieve equality. The umbrella was large enough to make our case for equality to the masses for all the letters represented in the LGBT acronym.

This unique coalition did not have its first flair-up nationally until 2007. That is when another attempt to secure passage of the perennial Employment Nondiscrimination Act or ENDA was brought up again in Congress. However, head counters, such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who is gay, noted that passage of the law would not have a chance if “transgender” was included in the bill.

The House ultimately passed the non-inclusive ENDA but it died in the Senate. To no one’s surprise, then President George W. Bush had threatened to veto the measure had it passed both chambers.

The failure to enact an all-inclusive ENDA generated a lot of heat. Transgender individuals felt betrayed by their being thrown under the bus so that the LGB portion gets their protections. Many gays and lesbians believed that having to incorporate the ‘T’ part of the bill was a drag on their progress.

Following the defeat in 2007, an all-inclusive ENDA had been introduced in the House 2009 and 2011—both times by Barney Frank and in the Senate by Jeff Merkley (D-OR). The bills currently sit in committee.

Earlier this year in Maryland, an attempt to add gender identity and expression to the current statute that prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit appeared to have traction. However, a decision was made by the legislation’s sponsor in the House of Delegates, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk that the bill be stripped of the “public accommodations” provision to help ensure passage.

This triggered a very heated, often ugly debate within Maryland’s transgender community. Some wanted to achieve at least job protections; others saw the bill as meaningless if “public accommodations” was absent. There were transgender folks who actually testified against the bill because of the elimination of this key provision.

Regardless, the bill made it out of committee and passed the House in its current form sans “public accommodations.” A similar measure was advanced to the floor of the Senate for the first time, but it was killed in a procedural vote. The marriage bill had suffered the same fate but died in the opposite chamber, also without an up and down vote.

There had been considerable finger-pointing and recriminations from the gay and lesbian component regarding the marriage bill’s failure as well as the transgender community’s anguish over the failure of the gender identity legislation. Those who sought the “public accommodations” language rejoiced at the failure.

Transgender activists continued their expressions of displeasure over the tactical decisions made and have taken steps to carry the fight next year on their own. The divisions within that community remain palpable and could jeopardize any chance of success in 2012 unless there is more unity with a singular effort to pass comprehensive non-discrimination legislation on the basis of gender identity and expression that includes “public accommodations.”

Unfortunately, the acrimony on the part of transgender activists resulting from the failed attempt in the 2011 General Assembly began to spread beyond the confines of the trans community, Equality Maryland and others to the LGB portion of the LGBT family. Some have opined on blogs and social media that if there hadn’t been so much attention to the marriage bill, there could have been more resources devoted to the gender identity measure.

They have also discounted the significance of marriage equality as opposed to housing and job and public accommodations protections for transgender individuals since, they feel, most gays and lesbians will not opt for marriage. And the memory of failing to include gender identity protections in the 2001 nondiscrimination law on the basis of sexual orientation is still raw.

Having this fissure in the LGBT community is not productive. I am certain that most transgender activists understand there is a tremendous amount of support among gays and lesbians in their quest for trans protections.

The upcoming effort may have received a boost as a result of the brutal beating of Chrissy Lee Polis, a trans-woman, in a Rosedale McDonald’s on April 18—a horrible incident that received worldwide notoriety thanks to a video of the attack that went viral. The rally emanating from the Chrissy Polis assault, which took place just days afterward, was well-attended despite short notice, and galvanized all letters of LGBT as well as allies.

And that turnout for support should not be ignored. To our transgender friends—please don’t fault gays and lesbians and the goal for marriage equality for the failure up to this point to achieve comprehensive protections. The legislature can handle more than one issue at a time as each chamber considered the separate bills.

I can’t speak for everyone, but essentially we are on your side. Most of us believe in the LGBT umbrella and your fight is our fight. The anger, understandable as it is, must be channeled towards the real opponents of transgender rights and not the LGB folks.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

For the President it Was Not a Happy Birthday

Although turning 50 is not ordinarily a cheerful event as that landmark makes one AARP-eligible among other reminders that the sunset years are closing in, it is no cause for despair either. Except when President Barack Obama turned 50 on August 4, his melancholy was not tied to the aging process; his presidency has given him the grey hairs we did not see as a robust, youthful candidate merely three years ago.

The actual day was not marked by cake and candles as much as the 500-plus plunge in the Dow. The debacle in the stock market all but wiped out the gains of 2011 at a time when the investing class looked towards their IRAs and 401k’s as a safety net during this stubbornly faltering economy.

The downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by S&P seemed to have piled on with the help of another stock market free-fall the next week. Then there was the tragedy in Afghanistan where thirty U.S. servicemen lost their lives.

These news items plus the fallout from debt ceiling debate put a damper on the mood of Mr. Obama’s supporters. Birthday or not, the country was not celebrating.

The President didn’t help himself politically during the depressing debate and negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling legislation. He abandoned the necessary component that any compromise be “balanced,” and that would include closing tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans as a revenue enhancer. The Tea Party members of the House were so intransigent on this element of a potential compromise—forcing Speaker John Boehner to follow that hard line lest he perceived as a weak leader—that Mr. Obama simply caved to avoid a devastating default on the government’s obligations.

Worse, he eliminated the 14th Amendment from his arsenal during his negotiations whereby he could have invoked the provision that applies to protecting our credit to avoid default. What President Obama should have done was insist on “the grand bargain” with its sweeping cuts that included entitlement programs and tax increases under the threat of using the 14th Amendment. But he didn’t and went along with a bill that satisfied Speaker Boehner by the tune of 98 percent.

The President went out on a limb to offer entitlement reform—anathema to the liberal wing—in exchange for tax reform. Neither was ultimately part of the final package as the Tea Party-led Republicans would clearly prefer to see us default and set off a chain of economic calamities than to mollify their own misguided economic dogma.

Moreover, the President blew a golden opportunity to go over the heads of Congress and take his message directly to the American people in a nationally televised prime time speech. He addressed the nation alright, but it was simply an explanation of the progression of the negotiations, not a rallying cry to the American people. Yes, he asked viewers to call Congress, which they did, but his speech fell flat and uninspiring—the complete opposite of Ronald Reagan’s addresses to the nation when things got dicey for him.

This lack of leadership and strength on the part of the President demoralized his supporters. In underestimating the influence of this noisy minority called the Tea Party Republicans and relinquishing key bargaining chips, he failed to adhere to the cardinal rule in politics: secure the base before running to the center.

It’s hard enough to win re-election in an environment that is projected to be unfavorable given the economy and joblessness. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush can attest to that. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Mr. Obama to make the sale with his base to maintain the level of enthusiasm needed to win a national contest. This translates into contributions and volunteerism, which could make the difference in swing states.

And for us LGBT folks, keep in mind that President Obama has done more for our community than any other previous president. A record number of openly LGBT appointees, public recognition of gay pride month, a comprehensive hate crime law, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and the refusal to further defend DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—as it winds its way to the Supreme Court have been notable achievements.

With an inclusive Employment Discrimination Act and a Congressional repeal of DOMA (unlikely but who thought DADT would be repealed?) that could be on the horizon, it is in the interest of our community that Barack Obama be re-elected over one of the potential opponents who are basically homophobic. Should he lose, none of these items on the menu will see the light of day.

That brings me to the reason to be hopeful: the opposition. The folderol from the debt agreement seemed to have cast the largest shadow over Congress as the approval level for that branch of government as a result of a recent New York Times poll is the lowest in history. Although the President didn’t emerge as a victor—far from it—he did not incur the wrath of the public as Congress in general and the Republicans and the Tea Party did in particular.

Further, this episode, which will undoubtedly be repeated when the super committee of 12 from Congress is called on to make the tough choices in the Fall or see calamitous across-the-board cuts in spending, will probably result in the return of the centrist moderates to the President’s side, which is crucial towards his re-election bid.