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MAY 2, 2008

'Work on something that amazes you'

NCTE’s Mara Keisling says LGBT people are winning

Cleveland--There are five things that you can do right away to improve the lives of LGBT in Ohio, says National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling.

“Meet your member of Congress, work for or donate to political candidates and let them know who you are, get the Ohio legislature to oppose the Real ID Act, get the Ohio Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed, and finally, you cannot be amazing unless you are amazed,” Keisling told 31 people gathered in Cleveland on
April 20.

Keisling held a pair of town halls in Ohio last weekend, speaking to 40 people in Columbus the day before.

“If I tell you to work on the Real ID Act and you don’t think it’s exciting, you will suck at it,” Keisling continued. “Work on something that turns you on, something that amazes you.”

The Real ID Act was passed in 2006 as an anti-terrorism measure. It requires photo identification for all Americans and creates large databases that track everyone’s movements and medical records.

Though Homeland Security regulations put out this year are less troublesome for transgender Americans than anticipated, there are still concerns. Thirty-one states--not including Ohio--have voiced objections to the act and threatened to ignore all or parts of it when they issue identification cards.

The Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act, also called EHEA, is currently in the Ohio legislature.

“The most important thing to do is what you are doing,” Keisling said. “LGBT people are winning. People around the country are educating others, letting people know that we are just like them.”

“Part of the reason why we’re doing better in Congress is because members of Congress are being trained by state organizations,” Keisling said.

Keisling spoke about the state of the LGBT movement. The National Center for Transgender Equality is focused on issues specific to transgender individuals, but does not see transgender matters apart from the movement as a whole, she said.

“We’re an LGBT social justice organization,” Keisling said. “Don’t assume there’s a difference between transgender and gay people. Lots of transgender people are gay.”

Keisling said NCTE will roll out a federal agenda by fall to focus legislators on issues of privacy and documentation, health care access, general federal government policies, establishment of a clearinghouse of knowledge on transgender matters, and transgender-inclusive legislation.

NCTE hosted a Washington lobby day on April 15, which drew 125 citizen lobbyists from 31 states, including two from Ohio, according to Keisling.

“LGBT priorities got mixed up a while,” said Keisling. “We’re not doing enough about HIV, we’re not doing enough youth work, and we’re not doing enough for seniors. That’s what happens when we go after marquee issues with limited resources.”

HRC ‘flinched’ on ENDA

Keisling spent a great deal of time on the possibility of another federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that doesn’t include protection for gender identity and expression. The substitution of a sexual-orientation-only version for the original transgender-inclusive one last fall caused a major controversy.

The House passed the gay-only measure in November and Sen. Edward Kennedy is backing it in the Senate.

Keisling called the Human Rights Campaign a “rogue organization” for supporting the substituted bill against the wishes of nearly 400 other LGBT groups under the name of United ENDA.

NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force were among the organizers of United ENDA.

“If [HRC] believed we [transgender people] were part of the family, they would not have done this to us,” Keisling said. “If they don’t think we’re part of the family, they have no right to speak for transgender people.”

“NCTE will not do anything with HRC to increase their credibility as a spokesperson for transgender people,” Keisling added.

“I don’t want to hurt HRC. I don’t want to de-fund HRC. I just want HRC to act responsibly,” Keisling said.

“It’s that ‘flinch moment,’ ” she added . “That’s the point when legislators try to wussie out of some part of a bill that might be difficult, the weak link.”

“If the strong link says ‘no,’ it doesn’t come out and the measure gets passed with little controversy,” Keisling said. “If the strong links say yes, it comes out.”

“We had the votes to pass the unified ENDA bill,” Keisling said, “but someone came to HRC and asked them to flinch, and they did.”

“HRC misunderstood the LGBT movement,” Keisling continued.

Keisling described the events that led to the bill substitution and said the parliamentary maneuver feared by HRC and Rep. Barney Frank if the measure wasn’t changed was unlikely.

Keisling expressed concern about ENDA’s future in Congress since legislators may be unclear as to who speaks for the movement, or if transgender people are part of the movement.

HRC has not committed to a unified ENDA introduction in 2009, and is, according to Keisling “pushing hard for Senator Kennedy to pass the bad ENDA in the Senate.”

Earlier this month, HRC president Joe Solmonese told the Gay People’s Chronicle that their future position depends on convincing 48 conservative Democrats in Congress to support the broader bill.

“In 2009, [transgender inclusion] depends on the degree we move those votes, and who the president is,” Solmonese said.

“Since President Bush isn’t going to sign it anyway, there’s no reason for Kennedy to run the bad bill, and everyone understands that except HRC,” Keisling said.

Keisling noted that HRC told lawmakers, hours before the November vote on the gay-only ENDA, that it would put their vote on its biennial legislative scorecard.

“That means that members who wanted to stand on principle and only support a transgender-inclusive bill would ruin their perfect civil rights voting record,” Keisling said.

Keisling also criticized HRC’s statements that passing a gay-only ENDA now and adding gender identity and expression to it later is the best strategy.

“It would be bad for us to lose, but it is also bad that we won,” Keisling said, adding that it was not worth splitting the LGBT movement and causing confusion among members of Congress just to pass an ENDA bill, regardless of how bad it might be.

“[HRC] needs to have victories so they can say they have victories,” Keisling said.

“It is not likely that another bill will pass any time soon that will include gender identity,” Keisling said. “As transgender people, we don’t have the numbers or the money to do it.”

Keisling said members of Congress should be told to reject any attempts to take transgender protection out of ENDA.

“They get to decide if we get it, but they don’t get to decide who we are as a community,” Keisling said.

She said the way around Frank and HRC next time is to get 218 or more votes committed to only supporting ENDA that includes gender identity protection.

Keisling said that Ohio House members on its target list--ones who voted for the ENDA without transgender protection and against an earlier vote to add it to a hate crime bill--include Ohio Democrats Zack Space of Dover and Charlie Wilson of St. Clairesville; with Republicans Pat Tiberi of Columbus and David Hobson of Springfield.

Keisling said her group is also paying attention to the 15th District House race in Columbus, where Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy and Republican Steve Stivers are vying for the seat of retiring Republican Deborah Pryce.

“The most important thing is helping LGBT people gain power,” said Keisling. “Our movement can still be aspirational.”

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