This month, the movement for gay rights in the workplace achieved a historic milestoneâ€”but at the expense of a smaller, more vulnerable minority group. Is that progress?
The background: On Nov. 6, House of Representatives approved by a 235 to 184 vote a bill granting broad protections against discrimination in the workplace to gay men, lesbian and bisexuals. On the front page of The New York Times, the bill was called the most important civil rights legislation since the Americans with Disabilities Act became a law in 1990.
Whatâ€™s more, the bill stands at least a chance of winning approval in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to overcome a likely filibuster. This would be a big dealâ€”liberal Democrats have been trying to get similar bills passed since the first one was introduced in 1974 by a couple of New York City reps, Ed Koch and Bella Abzug.
President Bush is unlikely to sign the bill, but you knew that. Interestingly, unless he changes his mind, the president in this case is out of step with dozens of FORTUNE 500 companies that lined up to support the bill. Among them: Chevron, Cisco, Citi, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Ernst & Young, Gap, General Mills, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, Nike and Time Warner. Impressive, no?
Hereâ€™s the problem. The bill won approval, in part, because Democratic leaders agreed to drop protections for transsexual and transgender people. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Barney Frank, who is gay, removed language that would have outlawed discrimination based on gender identity.
Thatâ€™s politics. As Ms. Pelosi said at the time, â€œHistory teaches us that progress on civil rights is never easy. It is often marked by small and difficult steps.â€
The trouble is, the Human Rights Campaign, which is the nationâ€™s largest gay rights group, also supported the bill, albeit reluctantly. That angered the groupâ€™s transgender members, and for good reason. The Human Rights Campaign calls itself an advocate for GLBT peopleâ€”meaning gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgenderâ€”but in this case the Tâ€™s were cast aside.
Donna Rose, a former Dell employee, author and diversity consultant, who was the first and only transgender member of the HRC board, resigned from that position in October, after the HRC decided to support the watered-down version of ENDA. Yesterday, Donna and Jamison Green, who were the only transgender members of a separate group called the HRC Business Council, resigned from that group, too, because they felt they werenâ€™t getting a fair hearing from top leaders of HRC. (I wrote a column in July about Donna and transgender rights.) The business council is an important group because it oversees the development of HRCâ€™s Equality Index, a widely-watched rating of employers on GLBT issues.
Their resignation letter, which Donna shared with me, goes out of its way to thank HRC staffers as well as other members of the business council for their work on transgender efforts. â€œBut principles are not for compromise,â€ they wrote, â€œso today we do what we feel we must.â€
HRC explained its decision by saying that a non-inclusive ENDA to protect gays and lesbians was better than no bill at all. The group said at the time:
While HRC was disappointed that HR 3685 did not include protections for transgender Americans, it believes the successful passage of Congressman Frankâ€™s bill is a step forward for all Americans, and that it paves the way for additional progress to outlaw workplace discrimination based on gender identity.
“Our fight for equality will not be won overnight,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “It will be won one step at a time, and we will not give up until we reach the finish line. This is a critical piece of legislation and a major step toward the finish line for all Americans.”
Itâ€™s hard to disagree with what heâ€™s saying.
But it’s even harder to watch a civil rights group supporting civil rights for some, but not all, of its members.