Transgender, gay workers' civil rights promoted in Employment Non-Discrimination Act bill

By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; 8:38 AM

As the Obama administration reviews whether to discard the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, House Democratic leaders are quietly pushing another testy issue in the culture wars: civil rights for transgender workers.

Proponents of a bill known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would provide job protections for gay and transgender workers, are actively taking a whip count to see whether the measure has enough support for floor action. The legislation is unnerving moderate and conservative Democrats who face brutal reelection battles this fall, and its prospects of passing the Senate are somewhere between slim and none. Nevertheless, its top backers are moving forward.

"It's something we ought to do," House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina said, explaining how he, as the top black leader in Congress, approaches the issue from a personal perspective.

"I feel just as strongly about [the ENDA bill] as I felt back in the '60s about civil rights legislation," he said. "I do believe we must treat this as something that is a problem that ought not be there. . . . I know what it is to walk into the room and be treated with disdain only because you look different."

Clyburn acknowledged that a perilous political landscape, drenched in anti-incumbent sentiment, makes the legislation a lightning rod for some of his colleagues. But ultimately, he said, "I don't think they're really putting their neck out."

The lead sponsor of the bill, which would provide federal job protections based on sexual orientation and sexual identity, is Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay House members. His top aide on gay rights issues, who is helping to write the job discrimination bill, is transgender.

Frank, his co-sponsors and gay rights activists have been wooing members of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition of moderate to conservative Democrats who hail mostly from rural and Southern states. They have also targeted socially liberal Republicans who voted for an ENDA bill in 2007 that was limited to sexual orientation. (The sexual identity language was stripped from the measure in order to guarantee its passage.)

Frank has lost at least a few supporters this time around. Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), for one, feels that "if the transgender language is included, that's just too far," according to his spokesman.

Election-driven tactics by conservative activists might be influencing the decisions of moderates in swing districts.

The Traditional Values Coalition, on the home page of its Web site, asks: "Do you want men dressed as women teaching your kids? Will this be the ENDA of innocence?"

The group warns that, under ENDA, "your children will be trapped in classes taught by drag queens and transgender activists" and they will be "forced to learn about bizarre sexual fetishes."

The coalition's executive director, Andrea Lafferty, has been lobbying members of Congress, and she describes them as "freaked out" by the bill. She tells members if they vote for the bill, they'll be allowing "she-males" with "serious mental disorders" into children's classrooms, leaving parents with no legal recourse.

Frank says he understands why moderate Republicans and politically vulnerable Democrats have "some uneasiness" about the issue. He has addressed two of the bigger concerns: workplace bathroom use and the appearance of transgender employees.

"People aren't going to be disrobing" in the bathroom in front of colleagues "with the opposite set of genitals," Frank explained. To that end, he said, the bill would seek to protect employers from lawsuits.

The other issue, he said, is the "mustache and dress" factor involving transgender employees and the reactions of clients and customers. Employers would be able to enforce what Frank called "consistent gender presentation."

None of these efforts seem to be swaying Blue Dogs.

"I don't think they should bring it up," said Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), the former Washington Redskins quarterback-cum-congressman. "First, let's get our fiscal house in order."

Shuler, who serves as chief whip for the Blue Dog Coalition, said moderates have "walked the plank a lot around here on things that never go anywhere in the Senate" and that asking them to vote on a transgender bill in this year's political climate would be "a mistake." Asked whether he thought the bill would ever reach the floor, he said, "I can't imagine that it would."

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