Thirteen LGBTQ protesters staged a sit-in at U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin’s Chicago office May 20. They went to insist that the senator sign a pledge affirming his support for a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) . The senator was not in his office, but the activists refused to leave unless the pledge was signed; Durbin did not oblige. The pledge required Durbin to “agree to stand before [his colleagues in the U.S. Senate and the media to forcefully declare the urgent need for a transgender-inclusive ENDA in 2010.”
After an hour and a half, they were arrested. They included Lindsey Dietzler, Roger Fraser, Brent Holman-Gomez, Nik Maciejewski, Rachael McIntosh and Corrine Mina. The arrestees came from the Harvey Milk Week of Action Coalition, and they represented groups such as GenderQueer Chicago, Join the Impact and the Gay Liberation Network. (The organization LGBT Change was not a participant in the sit-in, but helped to organize the week. ) They were later released.
The senator has co-sponsored the bill, but the group feels that his support has not been forceful enough. In addition, LGBT Change wants to ensure that the bill is inclusive of transgender people by including gender identity as a protected category. ENDA was poised for passage in 2006 but disintegrated in controversy when some of its sponsors, including openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, decided that the clause for transgender inclusion would kill its chances. Under severe criticism, the Human Rights Campaign supported a non-inclusive ENDA, and the move resulted in a still-prevalent widespread suspicion about the organization within the transgender community.
This year the bill has been moving along in fits and starts, but many LGBTQ activists believe that it is essential to push for its passage before it is deferred yet again. Anthony Martinez, a spokesperson for LGBT Change, told Windy City Timesthat the group was concerned that even if ENDA came up for a vote, another amendment could effectively erase the transgender-inclusive language. He said that trans inclusivity was especially important because “the transgender community is the most discriminated against in terms of workplace protection and it needs more protection than gays.” Martinez added that a fourteenth person (a trans protester) who went to Durbin’s office left before the sit-in because he has been unemployed for a few years and feared jeopardizing his ongoing job search if he were also arrested.
Transgender protections in the workplace have been widely reviled by right-wing groups who have sought to spread fears about the consequences of the same, especially in classrooms, and often in language that does not reflect the pronouns and identities chosen by transgender people. The Traditional Values Coalition recently stated, “every school district in America will be forbidden by law to reassign any she-male teacher because this would be considered ‘discrimination.’ Thus, children will be trapped in classes taught by men who dress as women and students will be indoctrinated to affirm that this is normal behavior.” Writing in response to such claims, Jillian Weiss, a trans activist who has been advocating for ENDA, wrote on The Bilerico Project blog that, in fact, “[c] ontrary to the claims of the Traditional Values Coalition, parents have appropriately been permitted to opt-out if they find that their child is having a particular problem.” She has also pointed out that “[o]ver two dozen states and over 100 cities in the U.S. are covered by laws prohibiting gender identity discrimination in the workplace since 1979. There are also many other countries that have similar laws. The fears of hysterical ideologues about harm to children have not come to pass.” (Disclosure: this reporter also writes for Bilerico.)
Discrimination towards transgender employees extends even to those workplaces where they are not in contact with children. According to a 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “97% of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job” and “47% had experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired or denied a promotion.” It also found that 15% of transgender people lived on $10,000 per year.
Lindsey Dietzler, a member of Join the Impact and Genderqueer Chicago and among those arrested in Durbin’s office, identifies as genderqueer and said that she participated in the action because, as she said to Windy City Times, “first and foremost, I don”t agree with exclusionary politics— [ ENDA ] is for all of us or for none of us.” But Dietzler also has had practical experience in what it means to be trans-identified or perceived as gender non-conforming in the workplace. In previous jobs, she said, “I’ve had to hide who I am.” Although her current workplace feels safe to her, she will be laid off in two months, and she is concerned about her gender identity being an issue in her job search or in a new workplace.
Windy City Times contacted Christina Angarola, a Durbin spokeswoman; she e-mailed that he “opposes discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He’s not only been a supporter of ENDA for the past several Congresses, he has taken a leadership role by signing on as an original co-sponsor of the legislation. In addition, he personally has a workplace nondiscrimination policy with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity.” But if that were the case, why would Durbin not sign the pledge? Angarola responded that “[Durbin] has a policy not to sign pledges, hasn’t signed one for many, many years. Had they made an appointment to meet with our staff we could have shared his policy positions.”
Martinez, asked for a response to that statement, said that LGBT Change had “asked the staff for an appointment with the senator, but he would not meet with us. We wanted to meet with the senator, not the staff.”