by Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON, DC –
The first ever federal hearing on workplace protection from transgender persons took place on June 26 before the education and labor subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Subcommittee chairman Robert Andrews (D-New Jersey) said under federal law it is permissible to fire persons, or refuse to hire them, because they are transgender or are perceived to be gender non-conforming. “To me, this makes no sense whatsoever. Employment should depend only upon how well one does the job,” he said.
He added, “We don’t measure our duty by the quantity of those who are aggrieved, we measure it by the depth of the grievance of those who are being discriminated against.”
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), the only open lesbian serving in the House, testified that the fact that Wisconsin had enacted legal protection made it easier for her to be honest and public about her sexual orientation from the start of her political career.
“The importance of nondiscrimination laws cannot be overstated,” she said. “Substantively, they provide real remedies and a chance to seek justice. Symbolically, they say to America, judge your fellow citizens by their integrity, character and talents, not their sexual orientation, or gender identity, or their race or religion. These laws also say that irrational hate or fear have no place in our workplace.’
Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) acknowledged that people often are uncomfortable with what is new and unfamiliar to them. “New and different sometimes make us nervous,” he admitted. “When I first realized I was gay, it made me uncomfortable. But we do get used to each other.”
“Every bill that I have ever been involved with, where we try to ban discrimination, has met the same argument – we have nothing against those people, they are OK, but it will be disruptive,” Frank added. “It has been trotted out for race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. People always say it is going to be disruptive, and it never is.”
David Schroer rose to the rank of colonel over a 25 year career in the U.S. Army, becoming a special forces officer, leading a top secret anti-terrorist unit and regularly briefing the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
He retired from the military in 2004, applied for and was hired as a counterterrorism expert with the Library of Congress. At the last meeting with a Library official prior to starting the new job, he mentioned that he was in the process of transitioning and would be reporting to work as Diane. The job offer was withdrawn the next day.
“I had gone from a welcome addition to the staff to someone who was ‘not a good fit’ because I was a woman. Hero to zero in 24 hours,” Schroer told the committee. She has pursued administrative and legal action to regain the job.
Diego Miguel Sanchez recounted his transition from female to male, which began at the age of five when he told his parents. “I felt like a boy inside. My mother showed me a magazine with Christine Jorgensen on the cover,” he said, citing the first widely-publicized story of a male-to-female transition. “From that time on my parents gently, privately, dually socialized me, but it was our secret of sorts.”
He was able to cope through the skills that his parents helped instill. He experienced the glass ceiling of working as a female in corporate America, saving up the money to make the desired transition.
Sabrina Marcus Taraboletti was working “a dream come true” for 20 years as an engineer with the space shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Center. In 2003, she was fired after announcing that she would be transitioning to being a female.
She was the fourth person to be fired from the center while making such a transition.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said, “We need more than a patchwork of state and local laws and employer policies. The brutal reality is, in most places in this country, a transgender worker who is fired or harassed for being transgender has no means of protection.”
Oppositional views to gender identity protection were also discussed, including forcing employers to go against their religious beliefs and causing discomfort among coworkers. Glen Lavy, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, asserted that protecting transgender persons in the workplace would impinge upon the deeply held religious beliefs of some people.
Lavy also showed a preoccupation with restroom issues as grounds for not hiring transgender persons. Minter countered under questioning by saying, “We have a lot of experience with this issue now [from places where protection is in place]…Any discomfort with coworkers will very quickly dissipate.”
“The hearing went wonderfully,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said after its conclusion. “It’s historic. Those of us who have doing this for a while are really amazed.”
Minter was practically giddy after the event. “So much work went into making this day possible,” he said. “So many people have worked for such a long time. Having a congressional hearing on this issue is a major milestone. It could possibly be the tipping point for us.”
Keisling acknowledged that legislation is highly unlikely to move this year, but “I’m really hopeful that in the next Congress we are going to get all LGBT people protected. I think it has become pretty clear that a stand-alone bill [ENDA excluding transpersons] is absolutely unacceptable to almost everybody in the LGBT community.”