May was an identity whirlwind for San Antonian Julia DeGrace.
First, she got her name and gender legally changed. Then, still without proper picture identification, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for a federal hate-crimes bill and employment protections for the LGBT community.
Within one week of returning to San Antonio, she gained the approval of her employer to “transition” into her newly adopted female identity while staying on the job.
While DeGrace’s first two accomplishments may light up the eyes of many of her friends, it is the latter that sets hearts afire. For those who believe nature mis-gendered them at birth, the lack of federal protections makes being true to themselves and holding down a job extremely difficult.
So when the multi-degreed engineer and former U.S. Marine read last week about the Human Rights Campaign’s decision not to fight the elimination of transgendered Americans from the much-battered Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, she was stunned.
“We feel as though we have been cast aside as worthless human beings,” DeGrace said, expressing the sentiment of many gathered at the bi-monthly meeting of the San Antonio Gender Association last week. “I felt betrayed.”
Similar bills have been introduced since the 1970s, but gender identity was added only this year in a bill sponsored by openly gay U.S. Representative Barney Frank after years of mounting pressure from the LGBT community.
ENDA is aimed at barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, after determining they could not get the votes for the entire LGBT community, the House leadership lopped off the transgender portion of the bill.
Following this bill doctoring, the gay community’s largest lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign, announced it would not support the new bill but did not commit to opposing it either, as virtually all of the other LGBT groups did. (Calls to HRC for comment were not returned by press deadline.)
A wave of protest crashed last week’s scheduled vote on the freshly divided bills — one for lesbians, gays, and bi-sexuals, and the other for the transgendered. Much of that furor ended up being directed at the Human Rights Campaign.
Donna Rose, the only transgendered HRC national board member, resigned her position in protest. She was followed by Robbi Cohn, who left a spot as a steering-committee member for the Carolinas chapter. In her resignation letter, Cohn said she joined HRC with the “optimism of a new bride” but had been left “an abandoned spouse, wondering why I have been told to wait my turn for equality.”
Cohn said she joined HRC believing the year-after-year exclusion of the transgender community from ENDA must be due to a lack of board education or, possibly, a lack of assertiveness by the transgender community itself. “I thought, ‘Well, we just haven’t demanded our seat at the table.’”
The trained paralegal would not be attending protests in D.C. because she could not afford to leave her low-paying retail job, itself a consequence of discrimination that ENDA would address, she said.
“For many of us, this is not theoretical. This is reality,” she said.
A study performed in Washington, D.C., recently found that only 58 percent of transgender individuals surveyed had paying jobs, and 15 percent said they had lost a job because of workplace discrimination.
As Cohn told the HRC board when she joined two years ago, transgender issues are “nothing short of survival issues.”
Michelle Myers, a San Antonio member of the Stonewall Democrats and national member of the HRC, said she is “really upset” with Rep. Frank but is waiting to get the full story from HRC before making final membership decisions. However, she said she is “getting ready to jump” as Cohn and Rose have.
The HRC has since launched an aggressive campaign to try to get the votes needed to pass a single all-inclusive bill as Frank and others had originally sought. However, Cohn doesn’t know what to believe about the events preceding what many are calling a betrayal of the bill’s very purpose. Others are critiquing what they say are loopholes in the bill’s language that diminish its power.
“What actually happened in the back room, no one really knows,” Cohn said.
On her May lobbying trip to D.C., Julia DeGrace never managed to get time with U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. U.S. Representative Lamar Smith sent an aide in his stead. And while Senator John Cornyn missed his coffee date he did show up for a quick round of photos, during which DeGrace offered to personally educate the Republican Senator about transgender issues. Neither an invitation back to Cornyn’s office, nor copies of the day’s photos have yet come DeGrace’s way.
A member of the San Antonio HRC chapter, DeGrace hasn’t made up her mind what to do. “I am not convinced that they share the opinions of the HRC national,” she said. “I may be able to work more effectively for the LGBT community within the organization.”
While she is the envy of many of her transgender “sisters” for her opportunity to transition on the job, she chafes at the appended stipulations. She is not allowed to reveal the identity of her employer, for instance. She is not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time at work about her gender identity. She has one designated bathroom on a sprawling workplace campus.
If she chooses to walk more delicately than she’d like, it is in the hope that others following behind her may find an easier time living out in the open.
“I’m doing much better work now that I am free of this worry … that I am mostly free of worry,” she said.
Still, had workplace protections existed in May, DeGrace says, “I wouldn’t have had to go through all that fear.” •
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