ENDA Times: LGBT Groups, Echoing the Civil Rights Era, Approach Churches

“I don’t care what you say. You were born a man and you’ll always be a man, no matter what you do!”

Those words were yelled at my friend Jenny, a male-to-female transgender person, by a coworker when it was announced that “Jim” would now be known as “Jenny.”

“My boss didn’t do anything,” Jenny remembered. In fact, it was the beginning of what Jenny called the “psychological war” launched against her by her coworkers—one that escalated to the point of police officers patrolling the office to deter threats of violence against her.

“The first day I came in as Jenny, I was terrified,” she said. She didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the attacks were subtle, and humiliating: being called by her old name or “sir,” being “assigned” a unisex bathroom by her boss. She had turned down the company’s offer of a personal bodyguard, knowing it would only make things worse.

The company had hoped to avoid dealing with Jenny. They offered to buy her out or transfer her to another office, all to avoid the flak they knew was coming. She refused. Now, two years later, Jenny says some people still give her trouble, but overall most coworkers are using her legal name, and she recently received a glowing evaluation from her boss, along with a raise.

Jenny is luckier than many transgender people in the workplace. Her company is large enough to have a policy that prohibits discrimination against her, though there remains no federal law that prohibits companies from discrimination against transgender people.

In April 2007, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was introduced to Congress, including a provision to protect transgender people. By September, that provision was stripped from the bill to make it more palatable to members of Congress concerned that including transgender people wouldn’t play with their constituents back home. That bill, which came to be known as the “non-inclusive” ENDA, passed the House two months later, though it failed to pass the Senate.

After languishing during 2008, a new transgender-inclusive version of ENDA is expected to be introduced into Congress within the next few weeks, according to Harry Knox, director of the Religion and Faith Program for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights organization in the country. Advocacy for the bill, which has not yet been introduced into the current Congress, is already beginning, according to Knox. The first test for the LGBT community before ENDA will be to find enough support to pass the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act—which was stripped out of a Department of Defense bill in the last Congress. Knox expects the hate crimes bill to come up for a vote before ENDA and if support for the hate crimes is strong, the road to ENDA may not be as difficult.

“No one should assume that it will be easy to get those votes on the hate crimes bill because we had an easy election cycle,” Knox said. “Many of the new Democrats who were elected come from conservative districts, so there is a great deal of work to do to get a strong showing for that bill. This is no time to rest on our laurels or make assumptions about the new Congress. We have to bring the full court press on both pieces of legislation.”

For the HRC, the passage of an inclusive ENDA bill is paramount if they are to regain the trust of many in the LGBT community. HRC became something of a pariah after they supported the “non-inclusive” version, which sparked accusations that they were willing to sacrifice the rights of transgender people in the name of political expediency. Even today, there are some LGBT people and organizations that won’t trust HRC or contribute to them for their perceived “betrayal” of transgender Americans. Sharon Groves, the Deputy Director of HRC’s Religion and Faith Program, calls the flap over ENDA the Human Rights Campaign’s “ordination.”

“We came to realize that no matter how people fall on HRC’s decision, the one place we have common understanding is that more educational work is needed. And it needs to happen at the local level so that it would not be such a hard sell to members of Congress when ENDA comes up again,” she said.

In that spirit, HRC has released a new curriculum on transgender issues aimed at faith communities. Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities: A Congregational Guide for Transgender Advocacy is a three-hour course that incorporates the personal stories of transgender people and their families with educational material to help people understand the legitimacy of gender identity issues.

The curriculum is available for any congregation, but it was specifically designed to be distributed to congregations in 40 congressional districts across the nation where representatives may have supported a “non-inclusive” ENDA, but would have voted against a version that included transgender people. Already, 33 of the districts targeted by the HRC have scheduled sessions. Knox hopes all 40 will eventually use the curriculum.

“This curriculum gives people a better understanding of what’s behind gender identity,” Groves explained. “It’s not an issue of choice, but is essentially who they are as people. Among transgender people—like lesbian, gay, and bisexual people—many have known their identity since childhood, and do not feel that they are in the appropriate gender. We need to understand what’s behind gender identity and understand their legitimate claims.”

Groves said they specifically targeted churches for the curriculum to tap a lobbying resource rarely used by progressives: people of faith.

“If we can have people of faith speak on transgender issues from their faith perspective, it’s a very powerful argument. It takes us away from the juggernaut that the religious right always seems to be able to claim that religion is antagonistic to LGBT people. If we can reclaim the moral ground, that’s very powerful.”

HRC is encouraging congregations that use the curriculum to invite their member of Congress to attend. If they can’t get their representative to show, though, Groves said they hope pastors of the churches using the curriculum will attend HRC’s Clergy Call to Action in May and lobby their representative personally. 

“So much of our work is about empowering ordinary people of faith and religious leaders to speak out on justice. Civil rights movement showed the power of the pulpit to shape public policy. Want to empower religious leaders to be a voice for change,” she said.

Getting an inclusive ENDA will be an uphill battle, even with a newly-minted Democratic majority in Congress and a fully supportive president in the Oval Office. While the recent Harris survey commissioned by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) shows that 51 percent of those polled support laws outlawing discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, only 41 percent of the very politically vocal group of evangelical Christians approve of such laws. Among mainline Christians, however, the support for measures like an “inclusive” ENDA are 57 percent. The HRC is hoping its curriculum will help that majority find its voice and be willing to work to educate members of Congress on the importance of including transgender people in employment protections. Jenny understands the importance of those protections.

“If corporate had not signed off on my transition plan, I would have been fired. I have a job because they had a nondiscrimination policy.”

That’s the message Congress—and the new president—needs to hear, especially from people of faith.