It never fails that whenever the subject of civil rights protections for gay people comes up, opponents start griping about "special rights." A surprising number of people think it's already illegal to discriminate against gay people in the workplace, for example.
In fact, it's legal for employers to fire someone for being gay in 31 states. And transgender people, those with gender-identity differences, have even less workplace protection.
At this writing, a historic piece of federal legislation that would change that was due a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives within a week. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been around in one form or another since 1974 and, thanks largely to the work of Rep. Barney Frank, was finally due a vote earlier this month.
But the bill was put on hold when an unexpected drama unfolded in the so-called LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community. Frank announced that he would be eliminating protections for transgender people from ENDA and submitting a separate bill for them. He said the bill would not otherwise pass.
About 250 LGBT organizations objected, including the most powerful one, the Human Rights Campaign. But its board later reversed itself, sort of, and said it would not oppose Frank's compromise bill although it would not actively support it, either.
At this writing, Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin plans to introduce an amendment that would restore protections based on gender identity. Even if ENDA – with or without Baldwin's amendment – passes the House, it is unlikely to get through the Senate or survive a presidential veto. Still, supporters argue a vote now will help strategize a successful campaign in 2009, after the presidential election.
The bill's drama is too complex to fully recount here, but it has caused a long-simmering debate in the LGBT community to reach a full boil. The issue is whether gay and bisexual people have enough in common with transgender people that they should be pursuing a shared agenda. Or, as several gay pundits put it, "Should employment protection for millions of gay Americans be held hostage to inclusion of transgender people?"
The underlying rhetoric of these pundits has been embarrassing. John Aravosis, owner of the popular AMERICAblog, wrote a piece for Salon.com whose language included statements such as this:
"What [do] I as a gay man have in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman. I'm not passing judgment, I respect transgendered people and sympathize with their cause, but I simply don't get how I am just as closely related to a transsexual (who is often not gay) as I am to a lesbian (who is). Is it wrong for me to simply ask why?"
This sentiment has been echoed around the Internet, and it demonstrates profound ignorance – not only about the activist role transgenders have had in the civil rights struggle but the very obvious way gay people's concerns are related to those of transgenders.
Arguably, the very basis for discrimination against gay men and lesbians originates in gender transgression. In the 1950s it was not uncommon for police to arrest people who "acted" or "looked" gay. This didn't mean the person was necessarily cross-dressing or was transsexual. It could be because a man was effeminate or a woman looked, to use a once-common term, mannish.
Indeed, even within the gay community itself, the receptive partner in anal sex – the "bottom" – has long been feminized simply because his role is analogous to the woman's in heterosexual sex. There is practically no stereotype of gay people that doesn't involve a gender issue – whether its effeminacy or, at the opposite compensatory extreme, the adoption of styles so hypermasculine they come across as ironic (to everyone else).
Of course, it's been an obsession of much of the gay male community to fight gender-based stereotyping by promoting the guise of "masculine normality." It is no wonder that transgenders, stereotyped as men who want to be women, are so annoying to this group of gay men.
Personally, I don't buy the argument that ENDA should be adopted without protection of transgenders. Aravosis and company argue that most civil rights movements have made their gains incrementally. True. I also think it's a valid criticism that the recent addition of transgenders to ENDA has not involved sufficient education of congressmen.
But I don't see that we are bound to proceed "incrementally" just because history has unfolded that way. ENDA's unlikely to become law before 2009, so the next year might be best spent educating people inside and outside the LGBT community about the ways sexual orientation and gender variance are related.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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