On Transgender Rights, Congress Needs Better Teachers

A thirst to learn more about Southeast Asia led my spouse, Joyce, and me to a pinch-me moment: Chatting in a eucalyptus-scented garden at Stanford University with a brilliant China expert.

"Would Vietnam have ended up pretty much as it is today if the 1956 election hadn't been cancelled?"

"How do the economic systems of Vietnam and China differ?"

On and on, Joyce and I questioned our generous one-hour teacher. As the end of our magical time neared, the conversation turned personal, with scholar and former CIA analyst Alice Miller alluding to her recent gender transition.

"Did it end up feeling the way you'd hoped?" Joyce asked.

"Oh yes, yes. I finally feel my true self," replied the gentle Miller, who had been so fearful of losing her career and livelihood that she waited until her early 60s to transition.

Watching the unfolding drama over whether legislation to ban anti-gay job discrimination has a prayer of passing the House this year if it includes trangender people, I've wished each lawmaker could spend an hour with Alice Miller.

Cold political calculations and even honestly felt qualms might melt away in the presence of a gifted transgender American who suffered needlessly. She is owed her birthright -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But time is running out, and trans-friendly lawmakers face painful choices.

Would bringing up a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) prompt the House to instead take hostile action, making it more difficult for lawmakers terrified of being branded "flip-floppers" to ever vote for trans rights? Why not go with the surer bet -- voting first for gay protections, then eventually building on that breakthrough by adding trans protections. That's the argument of gay Rep. Barney Frank.

Or, is it possible there's actually a razor-thin House majority willing to vote for a bill that doesn't leave trangender workers behind? And, even if there's not, wouldn't it be useful for a vote to show exactly which lawmakers still need to spend an hour over coffee with the Alice Millers of America? That's the gist of the counterargument by lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin.

Torn, my pragmatic side respects Frank's warning about the risks of forcing a transgender vote prematurely. My idealistic side echoes Baldwin's hope that it wouldn't be premature. Whichever strategy wins out, the past few emotional weeks have illuminated important milestones on the road to equal rights.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly supports trans-inclusive job protections.

Meanwhile, the near-universal plea by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups to keep ENDA trans-inclusive sent a powerful message to Capitol Hill that the GLBT movement doesn't want our "T" carved away.

And we who are part of that vibrant community finally do have powerful representatives -- Frank and Baldwin -- at the table.

Regardless of how this first round in the House plays out, it underscores how much more education must be done before an ENDA worthy of being cheered by all justice-seekers is signed into law by a future president.

A Buddhist proverb says when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. More than ever, Congress is signaling it's ready. The challenge for everyone in the GLBT community is to appear.


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