Rallying to make ENDA inclusive

By Gary Lapon

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.--Over 70 people rallied here on the steps of City Hall on May 3 to demand the passage of a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would bar employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United States.

Such discrimination against transgender people is legal in 38 states, including Massachusetts, while employment discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is legal in 29 states.

The rally was called by the Western Massachusetts chapter of Equality Across America (EAA), a grassroots network of LGBT civil rights activists determined to build a movement for full federal equality.

The rally focused on transgender inclusion because although protections for transgender people have been included in the most recent version of the bill, there are reports that the language specific to gender identity has been rewritten, and the updated version has yet to be released.

Organizers stressed the need to reach out to the 89 percent of the population who oppose employment discrimination to pressure Congress to stop stalling and pass ENDA now, and to challenge the right wing's tactic of opposing ENDA by shamelessly scapegoating transgender people.

Bet Power, a long-time transgender rights activist and founder of the East Coast FTM Group, pointed out, "We need to get the language of ENDA so we can be sure we're supporting a trans-inclusive [bill]." Power reminded the crowd of the scandal in 2007, when U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and the Human Rights Campaign broke their promise and supported a version of the bill that dropped protections for trans people.

Several other transgender activists spoke at the rally; many shared stories of times when they've been fired, not hired, or passed up for a promotion because of their gender identity.

"I'm the last one hired, the first one fired...I'm 45 years old, have over seven years of higher education, and I've never been promoted at a job. We deserve financial security," Trystan Dean, a lead organizer for the New England Trans United march and rally, said.

Lorelei McLaughlin, the reigning Miss Trans New England, added, "I'd go into a place with a 'help wanted' sign, give them my resume, and they wouldn't even look at it." McLaughlin shared that earlier in life, as a white man, she had no trouble getting jobs she was underqualified for, but more recently, has had to struggle to find work for which she is overqualified.

Power pointed out that he's "been fired for coming out about who I've slept with and for my gender identity...This is a very hard economic time, and we're suffering extreme poverty because of who we are."

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THE OUTRAGE of several speakers was palpable, as was the sense of urgency and a refusal to wait any longer for equal rights.

McLaughlin said, "we need a trans-inclusive ENDA now to secure basic human dignity."

Jessica St.-Claire, who said she is "proudly married to a transsexual," shouted: "It's the 21st century people, wake up...We're not in the Stone Age anymore! If they expect every American to pay taxes, they should get individual identity rights."

Her spouse, Elle St.-Clair, said, "Every day someone commits suicide, someone loses their job, parents are removed from their children, all on the basis of their gender expression. It's time to stop this."

Autumn Sandeen, a transgender Navy veteran who was arrested last month after she and others from GetEQUAL chained themselves to the White House fence in an act of civil disobedience to call for a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," sent a solidarity statement from San Diego that was read at the rally:

Now it is not only time to redouble our efforts at lobbying our own Congresspeople into passing a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but it is also time for direct action. It is time for public rallies like this one; it is time for nonviolent civil disobedience.

We need to create a tension that tells our Congresspeople that there is an urgency of now in our push for our employment civil rights on a national level. When it comes to employment protections for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we must send the message to Congress that we will no longer are willing to wait, nor are we willing to take the tranquilizing drug of incrementalism.

Several participants spoke about the need to fight for full equality and to stand in solidarity with other struggles, especially immigrant rights, in response to the recent attack on immigrants in Arizona, SB 1070.

Chants included "Trans/gay/immigrant/women's rights under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!" and "What do we want? Full equality! When do we want it? Now!"

The need for everyone to stand up for ENDA and equal rights on the job for LGBT people, and to make the connection between that and other struggles against discrimination, was driven home by one of the passersby, who joined the rally. "No one has rights until we all have rights!" they said.

Organizers called on rally participants to join them in Boston on May 22 at a rally at the State House to demand passage of the statewide Transgender Civil Rights bill and full federal equality as part of the national Harvey Milk Week of Action.

Madeline Burrows contributed to this article.