Top backers of gay/transgender nondiscrimination bill push for a vote

By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

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 sensitive 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 counting votes to see whether they could bring the measure to the floor for action.

The legislation is unnerving moderate and conservative Democrats who face brutal reelection battles this fall, and its prospects of passing the Senate appear slim. Nevertheless, its top backers are moving forward.

"It's something we ought to do," said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.). "I feel just as strongly about [the ENDA bill] as I felt back in the '60s about civil rights legislation."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay House members, is the lead sponsor of the bill, which would provide federal job protections based on sexual orientation and sexual identity. Frank, his co-sponsors and gay rights activists have been wooing members of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition -- a group of moderate and conservative Democrats -- as well as socially liberal Republicans who voted for a 2007 bill limited to sexual orientation.

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

Conservative activists are working hard against the bill. For example, the Traditional Values Coalition asks on its Web site: "Do you want men dressed as women teaching your kids? Will this be the ENDA of innocence?"

Under the proposed measure, the group states, "your children will be trapped in classes taught by drag queens and transgender activists."

Frank, saying he understands why lawmakers have "some uneasiness" about the issue, has addressed two concerns: workplace bathroom use and the appearance of transgender employees.

"People aren't going to be disrobing" in the bathroom in front of colleagues, Frank said, and employers would be able to enforce what he called "consistent gender presentation."

But Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who serves as chief whip for the Blue Dog Coalition, argued that asking moderates to vote on a transgender bill in this year's political climate would be "a mistake."

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