The basketball expression for it is "low-bridge." It is the dirtiest foul in the sport, the act of suddenly taking out a player's legs as he or she leaps for a rebound, pass or jump shot. It's a cheap and devious move, in that it may look spontaneous but is almost always premeditated -- and almost always a prelude to a fight.
That's what happened to the transgender community on Sept. 26. We were low-bridged. By -- of all people -- Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But, in a shocking upset, the transgender community picked itself up, rubbed its newly scraped elbows and fought back. Frank, Pelosi & Co. didn't know what hit them.
The impetus for this brawl was the struggle over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that is the proud product of some hard battles won by a unified coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists and advocates. ENDA seeks to protect civil rights so fundamental -- and so fundamentally American -- that it seems absurd we are still haggling over this in late 2007. ENDA would make it illegal to fire or refuse to hire or promote anyone based simply on the employee's sexual orientation or gender identity.
On paper, Frank, an openly gay Democrat, seemed the right person to lead this game plan. But as September rolled on, surveys of House members showed that ENDA did not have the votes to pass if it protected transgender people, but it did if it just covered gays and lesbians. So Frank huddled with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders and decided to play Solomon with ENDA -- only with half the wisdom. On Sept. 26, Frank announced his plan to split ENDA into two bills -- one bill protecting sexual orientation, which would get introduced immediately to Congress, and another bill protecting gender identity, which Congress would get to somewhere down the line. Maybe in a year or two. Or six or seven.
Ordinarily, self-interest dominates everything and everyone in Washington, and it often rolls right over decency and ethics. With ENDA, congressional thinking seemed to go: "This boat is listing. We better do something! But what? We really have no stomach for this sort of fight ... so let's throw the transfolk overboard! So what if they are the minority that needs ENDA's protection the most? Nobody knows a transgender person anyway; decades of intolerance and ignorance have kept them closeted. Who'll miss them in this bill?"
Big miscalculation. The strategy did not yield the usual we-got-ours run for safety. Lesbian, gay and bisexual activists stood alongside their trans sisters and brothers, and together we raised the roof. It was a beautiful noise, let me tell you.
It was so much noise -- about 140 gay and trans rights groups told Pelosi in no uncertain terms that protection for the transgendered needed to stay in the bill -- that she and Frank consented to delay a House vote until later this month. In these intervening weeks, Congress and America need to hear from the transgender people who live and walk and work among them -- you're reading one now -- and listen to what Barbara Sehr of the Ingersoll Gender Center told me last week.
"Until now, the problem has been that nobody has ever seen a trans person," Sehr said. "Before, the thinking was, 'Oh, they're just men in dresses and girls with beards. They're not worth the effort.' In their minds, this was not a civil rights issue. People saw it as a totally sexual thing, when nothing could be further from the truth. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity."
This generation, Sehr said, has more experience with the issue because more transgender people are being public about it.
"The same thing happened with the gay community. Twenty or 30 years ago, not that many gays were out, and people didn't realize they might be living next door to a gay person. Once people realized that the gay agenda included doing their laundry and driving their kids to school and getting their hair done, the thinking changed to, 'Hey, they're normal! They deserve civil rights.' "
You are reading this right now, in no small part, because in 2003 California passed a state version of ENDA, the Gender Non-Discrimination Act. In early March, I scheduled a meeting with a person in our human resources department to do some exploratory research about transitioning at The Times. I was told: "Well, The Times cannot discriminate against you because California has a law in place."
Well. That was worded somewhat more bluntly than I wanted to hear. But it also was comforting. I had protection. I could be myself, and I could continue to draw a paycheck. From those crude beginnings, I was able to work with HR and my editors on a transition strategy that enabled me to keep my job, change my byline and, as it turns out, boost my career to a new level of personal fulfillment. I now write three or four columns a week for The Times' Sports section along with two blogs, including Woman in Progress, about the experience of transitioning from male to female.
I realize I am lucky. California is one of nine states that currently bar discrimination against transgender employees. My friend Susan Stanton did not have that kind of protection in Florida. In February, she lost her job as city manager of Largo despite a long and outstanding record of public service.
So I have a personal and professional stake in what's happening to ENDA right now. So do you, if you care about the most basic rights being extended to a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend who might be transgender but afraid to tell anybody because a national ENDA is still but a concept being picked apart by some shortsighted political opportunists.
Christine Daniels is a Los Angeles Times sportswriter.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times