Representative Barney Frank's comment in Friday's New York Times reveals something very disturbing about the state of our democracy. Regarding his decision to exclude transsexuals from a bill forbidding discrimination against gays and lesbians, he says:
There is a tendency in American politics for the people who feel most passionately about an issue, particularly ones that focus on a single issue, to be unrealistic in what a democratic political system can deliver... and that can be self-defeating.
It is "unrealistic," Mr. Frank suggests, to include transsexuals in a bill (that, by the way, he already knows will never pass). The fact that 280 gay rights groups sent him pleas to be inclusive is apparently irrelevant. I suppose it is also "unrealistic" to expect our representatives to actually listen to us, especially when we're "passionate." In fact, he belittled the efforts of the lesbian and gay community, suggesting that "responsible liberals" would not ask for more than their representatives are willing to give them. At what point, then, is our system no longer democratic?
It is important to include transsexuals in this legislation. This is so not just because transsexuals deserve protection from discrimination, but because to exclude them would allow the division of the disadvantaged and this division weakens all disadvantaged groups. American history is replete with examples of such exclusions. Unions excluded blacks and women from their memberships in order to fight for a degree of class power that they could keep for working class, white men. Feminism has historically addressed the concerns of white, middle-class women and been ignorant or dismissive of the concerns of poor women, who were disproportionately of color. And the civil rights movement squashed feminist sentiment within its own ranks with the argument that we could only focus at one inequality at a time.
This dividing and conquering has weakened social activism in the United States. For this reason, the gay and lesbian activists who are demanding that transsexuals be included deserve to be congratulated. If women, gays, minorities, immigrants, the poor, transsexuals, and other aggrieved groups could all get together and say they oppose discrimination, period, then we'd be a massively powerful coalition that could demand justice for everyone. And, if Mr. Frank is right about the way the "system" works, it's time to stop begging for bits and pieces of representation and start demanding equal rights, starting with the right to live in a true democracy.