Image: Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images file
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is sponsor of a bill to ban employer discrimination against gays and lesbians.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/5/2007 1:28:30 PM ET 2007-10-05T17:28:30

The gay rights movement has come a long way since 1970 when Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked a liberal Republican critic of the Nixon Administration.

Agnew called Sen. Charles Goodell of New York “the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party."

Pundits found Agnew's sneering reference to the well-known 1950s transsexual clever, even if a bit harsh.

Today members of Congress aren’t making such people the butt of jokes; they’re debating whether they should have protection under federal law.

Many Americans know and work with a gay or lesbian person, but how many have a nodding acquaintance with a transgender person?

That distinction may explain why the House of Representatives is likely to vote within the next few weeks for job protections for gays and lesbians, but not for people who are transsexuals or adopt the appearance and mannerisms of the other sex.

The House Democratic leadership is giving activists from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) groups a few weeks to try to round up the votes to include transgender people in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

The bill would make it illegal for an employer to fire, refuse to hire, or offer less pay to a person “because of such individual's actual or perceived sexual orientation.”

Activists “have two weeks to try to get the votes” to include transgender people in ENDA, said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chief sponsor of the bill.

Defining 'gender identity'
Frank’s original ENDA, introduced last April, also said employers could not discriminate against workers on the basis of "gender identity” which his bill defined as “the gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, with or without regard to the individual's designated sex at birth.”

Video: Gen. Pace calls gays 'immoral' The new version of Frank’s bill drops gender identity as a protected status.

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A House veteran of 26 years, Frank comes to this conclusion: “The problem is we don’t have the votes” to give ENDA job coverage to transgenders.

But the fact that the House is even considering this idea shows how much has changed in the last few decades.

With the 2008 elections in sight, the transgender issue could give House Democrats in conservative-leaning districts something to vote against even as they vote for ENDA for gays and lesbians.

The view from Dover, Ohio
One Democratic freshman in a Republican-leaning district, Rep. Zack Space of Ohio, said he supports the idea of banning workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But legal protections for transgender people, he said, is a “more foreign” idea, and he is “not comfortable making a commitment on that.”

But even without transgender people included in it, would ENDA be politically unpalatable in Space’s Ohio district? “It may be, or it may not be,” Space said. “My vote on that issue is not based on the fallout politically.”

President Bush carried Space’s district in 2004 with 57 percent of the vote.

Also in 2004, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to make “only a union between one man and one woman” legally valid.

But marriage, Space said “is an entirely different matter” than employment policies.

ENDA “is not an insuperable problem for most of the Democratic freshman,” said Frank. “Several (Democratic) freshmen told me they’d vote for it.”

A Republican co-sponsor of ENDA, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., estimates that 20 of the 202 House Republicans would vote for ENDA, if it did not have transgender people included in it, while “practically none” would vote for it if transgender people were included.

The passage of ENDA, even if it led to a veto by Bush, would "set down a maker for a future president," Frank said.

Eventually the House will pass ENDA protection for transgender people, but not this year, Frank said.

The power of the GLBT lobby
“The Democratic leadership believes in nondiscrimination on account of sexual orientation,” said congressional scholar Prof. John Pitney, who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College.

"It also recognizes the power of the GLBT constituency," he said. "The leading gay political organization, the Human Rights Campaign has half a million members nationwide. Its PAC gave more than a million dollars in 2006, 91 percent to Democratic candidates.”

ENDA, he said, “may hurt Democrats in socially conservative districts.”

But have the cases of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who quit last year after his sexually provocative text messages to a male House page were published, and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, caught in a bathroom sex sting, eroded Republicans’ ability to use gay rights against Democrats?

“Though the Foley and Craig incidents may limit the GOP’s ability to highlight gay issues, conservative and religious activists will still criticize lawmakers who support such a measure,” said Pitney, who added that “congressional Democrats are testing the limits of how far they can go before triggering a backlash.”

“What we have to combat now is the fear of Democrats of being tied too closely to the GLBT community,” said Jeremy Bishop, Executive Director of Pride At Work, a GLBT advocacy group within the AFL-CIO.

He urged Democratic leaders to "not waffle because of fears of a backlash.” Bishop’s group supports including transgender people in ENDA.

Asked about the Democrats’ push for ENDA, House Republican Whip Roy Blunt said he was surprised that “they’re so aggressively defining themselves.”

He said, “It is helpful to us that they’re defining the difference between the two parties.... On this issue and other issues, they’re helping create an understanding of what the two parties are for and I think at the end of the day that’s good for us.”

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