There is an unfortunate debate now going on within the Democratic Party regarding whether to include gender identity in the federal Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA) now being considered by the U.S. Congress, an important bill that stands to protect millions of Americans from workplace discrimination. Our leadership seems in disarray on the issue, scheduling floor votes only to pull them.
Gender identity is at the core of the discrimination issue; not only transgendered individuals, gays, and lesbians suffer from this form of discrimination. Effeminate men and masculine women face tremendous discrimination regardless of their sexual orientation; indeed, sometimes, heterosexual men and women who defy gender stereotypes face even more discrimination than homosexual men and women who conform to gender stereotypes.
Why are we even having this discussion? When Colorado passed a statewide ENDA last session, it included gender identity without a murmur. Specifically, our Colorado Senate Bill 25 defined sexual orientation as "a person’s actual or perceived orientation toward heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgender status." Some legislators supported it and some opposed it, but none cited the gender identity issue as the reason for their opposition. The very fact that the issue of excluding gender identity is being raised at the national level demonstrates the paramount importance of including it.
I am sick and tired of hearing our DC leaders say that an inclusive ENDA cannot pass. Who are the US Representatives who would vote to eliminate workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity? Are there any? Let them step forward so we can focus on changing their minds and their hearts. Their position makes no sense.
Ending workplace discrimination only for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals but not transgendered Americans would be the equivalent of passing a civil rights act that prevents only discrimination against Latinos and Asians, but not Blacks. Because the groups left behind are a smaller percentage of the population, it will be more difficult to ever include them.
Let us be honest; the gay and lesbian communities are better organized, larger, and stronger than the transgendered community. If the bulk of the gay community gets their protection through a narrow ENDA bill, it will be much harder to ever include gender identity. As a gay man, I want nothing more than to end workplace discrimination nationally. But my hands will not be soiled with the guilt of undermining our real chance to protect the rights of our whole community including those who defy prevailing gender stereotypes.
A friend of mine is a public school teacher who recently transitioned from a female to a male. The fear and worrying that he went through, even at an enlightened school in an enlightened district, were very real. I can only imagine what those who defy gender stereotypes face in less progressive communities.
The closet is a terrible place for gay men and women who have to hide who they are; like all of us, I was there. The threat of losing their jobs keeps many gay people in the closet in their professional lives, which is why a federal ENDA is so very important. The temptation to seize our victory is great; the scent of victory sweet; we know that even the most narrow victory would have an enormous, positive impact across America, particularly in areas where discrimination is the norm rather than the exception.
It pains and saddens me greatly to say it, but a narrow victory would come at the expense of the larger battle for equal rights. Such a victory would undermine the moral underpinnings of our movement. We are all in this together. The brave and deserving gay men and women who face potential professional repercussions for living openly and honestly might need to stay closeted just a little bit longer so that we can all emerge from the closet together and celebrate the full rainbow of gender diversity.
Our community should stick together and push for one ENDA, a national law that we can all be proud of, that protects all Americans from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The LGBTQ community has made great strides in its battle for equality in the last few years, but we must remind Congress that you can’t spell equality without the T.
Jared Polis, former Chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, is currently running for US Congress