I haven't commented yet, at least not on this blog, about the House vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) yesterday, or the controversy over the fact that version of the bill passed by the House did not include gender identity and thus does not — as previous versions of the bill did — protect transgender persons from employment discrimination.
The House on Wednesday approved a bill granting broad protections against discrimination in the workplace for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, a measure that supporters praised as the most important civil rights legislation since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 but that opponents said would result in unnecessary lawsuits.
The bill, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, is the latest version of legislation that Democrats have pursued since 1974. Representatives Edward I. Koch and Bella Abzug of New York then sought to protect gay men and lesbians with a measure they introduced on the fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the brawl between gay men and police officers at a bar in Greenwich Village that is widely viewed as the start of the American gay rights movement.
“On this proud day of the 110th Congress, we will chart a new direction for civil rights,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat and a gay rights advocate, in a speech before the vote. “On this proud day, the Congress will act to ensure that all Americans are granted equal rights in the work place.”
I remember, and blogged about the last time a house of Congress voted on ENDA, a moment that was at once historic and disappointing, just as this moment is. For slightly different reasons, though.
The twist this year is that the measure has emerged as an example of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pragmatism in trying to make headway on leading issues by granting concessions, even at the risk of angering her party's base.
To ensure passage of the bill, Ms. Pelosi and other Democrats, including Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is openly gay, removed language granting protections to transsexual and transgender individuals by barring discrimination based on sexual identity, a move that infuriated gay rights groups.
The Democrats also carved out a blanket exemption for religious groups, drawing the ire of civil liberties advocates who argued that church-run hospitals, for instance, should not be permitted to discriminate against gay employees. The civil liberties groups wanted a narrow exemption for religious employers.
Much ink, bandwidth, and hot air have been employed about they whys and why nots of a anti-discrimination bill that essentially takes the “T” out of “LGBT.” Accusations, recriminations, adulations and explanations have filled the air, and I've hesitated to publicly add my voice. Until now, that is, because I've tried to understand the reasons people on both sides took their positions. But I've found it impossible not to take a side.
As a black, gay man, I find it hard to find anything to celebrate in a moment that essentially puts someone else's equality on hold at a time when I've been asked to put my own on hold. In both cases, the reasoning is that some of us have to be back-burnered for the greater good. It's a curious this, this .
I understand the “win what we can win now” approach, because it's nothing new. It's the same gradualism that's a part of ever civil rights debate. And, as in every other civil rights debate, the implication of gradualism is that some people will have to continue to endure injustice without remedy.
Its one thing to be an incrementalist and at least be honest about that last sentence. It's quite another to declare that it is the right thing to do to ask others to continue to suffer injustice without remedy, that they ought to be glad to do it, and that they are wrong for objecting to it.
That's what's asked of of gay folks by progressives on the marriage issue. And now that's what gay folks are asking of transgender folks on employment discrimination, which for some transgender people is literally a matter of life and death.
And for movements that are supposed to be about progress and equality, it's a matter of of a certain degree of concession to the opposite of both.
That's the difference between gradual vs. immediate social change, I guess. The former always means that those who are denied justice have to suffer injustice for a longer time, but the majority can comfortably take its time about changing a status quo that currently works in its favor. The latter almost always means that the aggrieved receive justice sooner than it might have been delivered to them at the acquiescence of the majority, but at the cost of upsetting the status quo.
…It feels like saying that Frederick Douglas was wrong when he said this.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Or at the very least it feels like paraphrasing Douglas to read, “Power concedes nothing, unless you ask it nicely enough and long enough.”
How nicely and how long remains to be seen. Who wants to find out?
Power concedes nothing without demand, indeed. But what do we concede.