Monday, October 15, 2007

An Inclusive ENDA

There's a proposal to take gender identity out of the categories protected by the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) pending in congress right now. Please call your U.S. representative - capitol switchboard # is (202) 224-3121 - now to urge them to keep gender identity in the bill. If you don't know who your representative is, you can find out here by punching in your zipcode. For more on this issue with ENDA, see this page at the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Right now, legislative avenues are not my #1 favorite avenue for activism, but this still seems significant to me, partly because of the way trans exclusions within gay/queer communities have unfolded recently and in the past. Some people, including Congressman Barney Frank, have said that it is better to leave gender identity out "for now" so that the bill will have an easier chance of passing with sexual orientation protected. That is one of the problems with using law in a struggle - it constrains your struggle, and the "solutions" end up being exclusionary and/or policing.

Some posts I've read by other bloggers and even a few comments on facebook have helped me think about and better articulate why I'm against dropping gender identity from the bill. They also have further educated me about the exclusionary histories of groups like HRC (Human Rights Campaign), who was very slow to move on the current proposed exclusion of gender identity from ENDA.

Transgriot wrote a great informative post about the history of trans exclusion (as well as regional and racial exclusivity) in mainstream gay groups like HRC. One thing that she says about the problem asking the trans community to "wait" really helps bring the issue into focus:
"We're also pissed that the same people who demanded (and still demand) that we accept 'incremental progress' when it comes to trans rights hypocritically have no intention of accepting 'incremental progress' when it comes to legal recognition of same-sex relationships."
Angry Brown Butch also critiques HRC in this recent post:
HRC is, in a nutshell, an extremely mainstream, pandering, assimilationist LGB”T” organization that seems to work primarily for the rights of the most privileged, white picket fence (and just plain white) sort of queers. Well, not queers, seeing as “queer” is not their sort of word. They are decidedly lesbian, gay, bisexual I guess, and let’s throw in transgendered so that it looks like we care.
Transgriot also has post specifically about transphobia and Barney Frank in the past and with the current ENDA.

So... I don't think gender identity should be taken out because I can't stand the idea of (and don't want to learn how) embracing the idea of fighting for a "protection" that purposely leaves some of my friends and allies behind. Especially because of the way that trans exclusion/violence/oppression is written into all kinds of government and social practices. And the history behind this is important and not irrelevant to the current attempt at exclusion. One person on facebook said something like, this doesn't mean trans "later," it means trans never, because of the way power, and privilege work. And because of the marriage-rights focus of mainstream wealthy/powerful groups like HRC.

The other thing about this is that it works to divide queer and gay communities, and I don't think this is a total accident. Just like the way some race and/or class struggles work, it's offering one group some privileges if they agree to divide from the other part of the group. It breaks up alliances that could happen in a more inclusive way and forces people to choose between these alliances and a mainstreaming, limited protection that excludes or steps on other peoples' feet.

On the facebook wall for a group supporting an inclusive ENDA, someone made the point that this is also important for people that aren't trans but have some other kind of non-conforming gender identity or expression. It affects and constrains the expression of other people in (and not in) the gay/queer community. If gender identity and expression is an acceptable form of employment discrimination, then only gay people that are able to/want to/do assimilate to mainstream (straight) gender norms are protected. You are only allowed to be gay if you assimilate to straight gender norms and don't threaten/challenge anyone in that way. Besides being a fucked up way of policing what kind of queer community is acceptable, it's also a pretty gaping loophole that employers could easily use to discriminate against gay people that dressed or acted "inappropriately" or "unprofessionally" or in a way that "made clients uncomfortable" or whatever they want to say because they were too masculine or too effeminate or whatever.

It reminds me of an article I read about the "assimilationist bias" in anti-discrimination law called Covering by Kenji Yoshino. It's the idea that, if you can't change it (eg skin color), then you are "helpless" to change it and it's protected, but if you can (eg straighten or cut off your kinky black hair) then you should, and your "difference" (rather than society's structure/oppression) is what's generating the social inequality, and it's not protected. It's still racism if a black person can't be fired because of their skin color but can be fired because of having their hair in braids or locks rather than cut short or chemically straightened to look like white hair.

It' part of an idea there are a few different levels of assimilation: all-out conversion (think ex-gay movement), passing (think being in the closet at work and passing for straight), and covering (discreetly mentioning you've got a "partner" at work but making sure you didn't flaunt it in anyone's face or be yourself in a way that would make any straight people you work with too uncomfortable or challenged, maintaining your expected gender norms, etc.). Just because someone can "cover" or "pass" (and not everyone can, obviously, and many do so with trauma and/or self-suppression) doesn't mean they should have to - and an ENDA without gender identity could encourage this.

I'm writing from a position of a lot of privilege to be able to sit back and reflect on this in a really abstract/theoretical way. For a lot of reasons, I haven't experienced overt hostility or discrimination in employment because of my gender or sexual orientation. But to me it seems like supporting an exclusive ENDA is the wrong way to go.


misscripchick said...

love the post. i think a lot of times people get stuck on the legislative side or technical side of things and don't see the bigger picture of how excluding trans folk out of ENDA is reflective of how society says (sometimes) okay you're queer, we can deal with that, but once you start going outside of what we think that means, forget it and what it means to not stand up against that. thanks for posting.

in search of balance said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm looking forward to the day when differences are celebrated rather than politicked. Although protection against discrimination of all sorts is important enough for me to want it in place right away, I agree that omitting gender identity in a bill like this is not acceptable. I called.

Jonah said...

I'm not into legislating nondiscrimination. The conservative and liberal trannies in one of my listservs got into an argument over this one.

With or without a meetup group, you and I could meet. My email address is diffabled at hotmail.