Practical Queer Politics? Reflections on ENDA and Recent Cultural Change

The recent challenge of ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) in Congress elaborates the challenges of “social change.” Some progressive activists wish the bill to be held up until Transgender protections are included. Here a gay rights activist explores the limitations of this “demand the ultimate goal” strategy and draws noteworthy comparisons to conservatives slow, piecemeal 30 year anti-Roe v. Wade effort.

Debates surrounding ENDA activate my synapses. In September 1996, I began at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. On a clear and breezy afternoon I departed a meeting in the Russell Senate Office Building and bumped into our Legislative Director, Becky Shelton, another Legislative Assistant, Jeffrey Leninger, and a veteran lobbyist from one of our allies, a liberal religious group or People for the American Way.

Jeffrey explained in his new language –DC speak– that DOMA was lost though ENDA is up in the air. DOMA, The Defense of Marriage Act, had just overwhelmingly passed both chambers with the promise that ENDA would come also come up for a vote. Bringing up ENDA was an attempt for all those who supported DOMA, including President Clinton, to simultaneously announce a lack of animus toward gay individuals while denying states the ability to allow gay marriage. I was invited to join them into the Senate Gallery to watch the historic ENDA vote. Although I grew up 20 minutes away, I’d never ventured here. Our veteran lobbyist companion guided us through the maze of security checks, crowded hallways, stairs and elevators. He provided us with tickets to the Gallery. Becky tried to bring in paper and pen to record the votes for our director. “Not allowed,” he told us. Becky huffed a bit incredulously. “There’s no talking, writing or signs permitted. They don’t want the possibility of political advocacy in the chamber.” We arrived after debate at the start of roll call. We counted Yeas and Nays in our heads and tried to remember the votes of Jewish members. In the end, the bill failed by two votes, I believe.

Now ENDA isn’t progressive enough for some gay rights groups? What’s changed? Since the 1996 vote, US culture began to shift dramatically. In 1997 Ellen DeGeneres came out authentically and then fictionally. Soon after, many high schools caught up with colleges in beginning to offer more gay friendly groups and norms. Nearly a dozen gay and lesbian characters exist each year on television. Films began to let gay characters do more than hide and suffer, die of AIDS, serially kill or offer main character support. LGBT grew into a familiar shorthand. By 2004, gay marriage, a fringe opinion in 1996, became a national topic with Gavin Newsome’s decision to allow the practice in San Francisco. By the fall Rove’s conservative strategy placed anti-gay marriage laws (mini-DOMAs) on two dozen state ballots. Courts in Hawaii, Vermont, California, Maryland and Massachusetts have taken up the issue with varying results.

What a ride! Such a short time! We’re living through great transition. We live in an age unimaginable by previous generations and civilizations. Are we the most just? The most coarse? Teetering on repression? Sometimes demands of radicals are just as likely to cause backlash as progress.  Let’s not expect Congress to lead the way for progressive legislation, especially on “cultural” issues like transgender rights.  Most of the time Congress is necessarily behind the times unless a major civic movement demands government action.

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