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Thank You, Barney Frank

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For those who've read my work and listened to my radio shows over the years, the title of this post will probably come as a surprise, but there's good reason for trans people and allies to be grateful to Barney Frank for his work in Congress in advancing the cause of LGBT rights. As for why, let me tell you a little story.

I came out as trans woman in 1997, and it wasn't long afterward that I began following LGBT community media and the politics surrounding the community. At the time, there really wasn't much, and what was available focused almost exclusively on non-trans gay men and lesbians. Two notable exceptions to this rule were a Boston-based radio show called "Gendertalk" and an online LGBT radio station called GAYBC.

Barney Frank did interviews with both of these media in the late '90s, and whenever the subject of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and transgender inclusion in the bill came up, his answer was always the same: "There are no votes for that." We didn't want to hear that, of course. We enthusiastically criticized Frank and his fellow Democrats for it, but he was right. At the time, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of transgender protections being added to the bill.

There was plenty of blame to go around, not only for a Congress that didn't understand or care about trans people or the issues affecting us, but also for an activist community that centered almost exclusively on the interests and issues of non-trans gays and lesbians, often even displaying overt animosity and disdain for transgender people and our inclusion in the overall movement for American civil rights, most famously evidenced by the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) then-president, Elizabeth Birch, who was quoted in the media as saying that transgender inclusion in ENDA would happen over her dead body.

With the creation of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) still years away, the only national organizations focusing directly on the issues of importance to transgender people were the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC), a grassroots transgender advocacy group, and GenderPAC (GPAC), an organization led by transgender author and activist Riki Wilchins, which started out advocating exclusively on behalf of trans people but later expanded its focus to a broader agenda of gender rights.

Both organizations hosted annual events in Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Congress on transgender-inclusive legislation, though GPAC was criticized for what many trans people believed was a much too cozy affiliation with the Human Rights Campaign. GPAC was accused of pre-lobbying against transgender interests at the behest of HRC and the Democratic Party leadership, going to Congressional offices in advance of Lobby Days events and telling legislators and staffers that while they could expect visits from trans people advocating for an inclusive ENDA, in reality activist leaders were fine with an ENDA that didn't include protections for trans people. While there was certainly plenty of circumstantial evidence to back up these claims, they were never conclusively proven.

The fight for ENDA and the federal hate crimes bill remained pretty much in a political holding pattern until April 2004, when several transgender and allied organizations were all in Washington at the same time for various reasons. NTAC and GPAC were holding Lobby Days events, the Transgender Veterans Association (TAVA) was holding an event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to honor transgender veterans, and a team from an organization I co-chaired, OutForDemocracy-Transgender, a group of politically active, transgender Democrats, met with the LGBT Outreach leaders of the Democratic National Committee and John Kerry's presidential campaign, a first-ever meeting between transgender activists and representatives of a major presidential candidate.

Transgender activists were all over D.C. that week, but another event was perhaps really the most significant with regard to the political progress of trans-inclusive civil rights. A couple dozen activists drawn from the various groups in town that week came together one afternoon to protest HRC in front of its headquarters. I was there, along with community columnist Gwen Smith and Internet radio host Ethan St Pierre, with a collection of trans folks holding protest signs and chanting slogans.

During that same week, trans lobbyists on the Hill learned that HRC was still actively undercutting our lobbying efforts to promote transgender inclusion in ENDA and the hate crimes bill with members of Congress, both of which at the time were still highly questionable.

Upon returning home, I felt that I had to go public with what we'd learned, so I wrote and published online an exposé/call to action, which I titled "In Through the Out Door". I was barely known as a community commentator at the time, but the impact this article had in the LGBT activist community was unquestionable, with reprint requests appearing in my email almost daily for weeks. The piece even showed up in an informational packet given to HRC Executive Board members who were taking a vote on HRC's policy of transgender inclusion in federal legislation later that year.

At this point, Barney Frank and the Democratic Party leadership were still doing their level best to pretend we didn't exist, but by now the reality in the LGBT activist community was very different. Barney Frank and HRC soon became full-fledged villains within trans and allied activist circles, even more so than they'd already been in the past. We now had clear evidence that what we'd been saying all along about their lack of support for truly equal rights wasn't merely the ravings of fringe, radical leftists, as had been popularly believed in the past. Over time, more and more progressives began to line up alongside us and demand that the Democrats change their tune and support trans inclusion in ENDA. Then came the events of 2007, our watershed moment, when everything changed forever.

I won't go into detail here about the Congressional political maneuverings of 2007 around ENDA, as that story has been told and retold to death. Suffice it to say that when Barney Frank and the Democrats introduced and successfully passed a non-inclusive ENDA in the House with the support and endorsement of HRC shortly after HRC president Joe Solmonese had promised a room full of transgender activists that the organization would only support an inclusive version of ENDA, transgender people began to come out from behind their computers and get into the streets in a way that we've never seen before or since.

All that following year, whenever HRC would hold one of their fundraising galas in a major city, transgender and allied activists would be there with protest signs, chanting slogans, and creating a phalanx of angry progressives that any politician who wanted to attend one of these events would have to pass through. Many chose not to attend, and indeed some did so quite publicly, declaring their support for transgender inclusion in ENDA and their disdain for HRC's support of the non-inclusive version of the bill. A protest event held in San Francisco down the street from an HRC gala that year actually drew significantly more attendees than the event it was protesting. Keynote speakers canceled appearances, and local politicians who normally attended one of these events every year suddenly found themselves with scheduling conflicts on those nights.

The American LGBT civil rights movement and the politics surrounding it had been changed forever, and Barney Frank was not only in many ways the catalyst for that change, but also among the first to see the writing on the wall. With Frank leading the way, Congressional Democrats quietly dropped their support of a non-inclusive ENDA and instead focused on the passage of a transgender-inclusive federal hate crimes bill, which finally became law in 2009.

And that, boys, girls, and everyone else, is why the first federal law that named LGBT Americans as a protected class, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed into law fully trans-inclusive, why there's no longer any such thing as a non-inclusive version of ENDA being promoted in Congress, and why we have Barney Frank to thank for it. For all of the problems we've had with Barney Frank and his advocacy of LGBT rights in Congress over the years, it's doubtful we ever could have come as far as we already have without him.