11/07/2013 06:57 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

From Dress Codes to ENDA, a Personal Journey of Social Progress

I feel very privileged to have lived long enough, from being at Stonewall as a teenager to being in the Senate gallery today, to watch history unfold. I always felt disappointed that I was too young to ride to Mississippi during the summer of '64 as a Freedom Rider and had to satisfy myself with anti-war demonstrations and fighting to allow girls to wear pants and boys to wear jeans to school.

With a bit of hard work, we did manage to upgrade the school dress codes during the '60s, and today we have taken one more step toward upgrading the far more important promise of the Declaration of Independence, granting the inalienable right of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" to all. The "blessings of liberty" ordained by the Founders in our Constitution are now closer to the grasp of more Americans than ever before. No small matter, even when there is much work left to do.

The Employment Non-discrimination Act of 2013, S.815, passed the Senate today, 39 years after it was first introduced in 1974 by Bella Abzug and Ed Koch, and 17 years after its last Senate vote. That 1996 vote -- similar to today's in that two years after the Gingrich takeover, the House was the far more difficult chamber in which to pass a civil rights bill -- failed by one vote, as Senator Pryor (D-Ark.) was home with his son, who was undergoing chemo. Today, 17 years later, that son, the current Sen. Pryor, voted "aye" on the floor of the Senate, contributing one of the 64 votes for passage, both for the cloture vote and the vote for final passage. And the United States Senate, led by the bill's sponsors, Democrat Jeff Merkley and Republican Mark Kirk, declared by its actions that all Americans, including the LGBT community, should have the freedom to work across this country.

I have written before about the current split between the state of rights for the transgender and gay communities in this country. I have worked for this bill with the slogan "No Gays Left Behind," because trans and gender-nonconforming persons, gay and straight, are now protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I won't be satisfied until all members of our community are protected, whether by this bill or Title VII (which will happen), and it is my pleasure to have been part of the process.

It's been strange, looking back on the battles of 2007, when gender identity was stripped from the House version of ENDA. That bill passed but never made it to a Senate committee, and the scars from those days still impact the actions of many in both the trans and gay communities. Today we hardly even hear the phrase "trans-inclusive ENDA" anymore. It's just ENDA, and it is understood that, of course, it's inclusive. Even more remarkably, our Freedom to Work team, which lobbied 37 Republican senators over the past few months, rarely encountered any real resistance to trans inclusion. Only Sen. Flake was reluctant, but his colleagues, including Sen. McCain, were able to bring him to "yes," and today he was one of 10 Republicans who supported the measure. Sen. McCain was even "pleased" to vote for the bill. Their state, Arizona, already has comprehensive, trans-inclusive protections in its major urban areas, as well as a Transgender Studies Program, the first of its kind, at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Most of the Republican resistance was ostensibly about "religious liberty," a far cry from the overt, frank homophobia of previous decades. Only one Republican senator today spoke against the bill on the floor, Sen. Coats of Indiana, and he was concerned with the mythical flood of potential lawsuits. To be fair, "religious liberty" is a foundational American concept, on par with freedom and equality. It is unfortunate that the liberty that certain religious individuals demand is the freedom to act in a bigoted manner, reminiscent of the Bible being used to justify slavery in the early decades of this country's existence. That, too, shall pass, but in the meantime it is the fig leaf used by some to mask their prejudice. However, we must remember that others have sincere religious objections that must be respected, and Democratic senators showed that respect in moving us all forward. Even Sen. Toomey (D-Pa.), who introduced an amendment to expand the religious liberty argument to private corporations, did so in a focused, respectful manner and was praised by Majority Leader Reid for doing so. The amendment, the last one to be considered, failed 43-55.

My personal highlight this afternoon was being embraced after the vote by Sen. Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Booker of New Jersey. Sen. Harkin has done as much as anyone, often with Sen. Ted Kennedy, over the many, many years that this bill was generally ignored. And Sen. Booker represents the future to me: post-racial, post-gay, learned across communities and traditions, unintimidated by outdated cultural norms and restrictions.

There have been times in American history when a 64-32 vote, which is a two-thirds majority, was considered a supermajority. It sure felt like that today. And I want to say one more thing about the journey to the Senate floor today. I, like many in the trans community, was bitterly disappointed when gender identity was stripped out of the bill in 2007 and then passed in the House. I knew then that there was value in that vote, but it was extremely painful to accept. We all know now that experience helped build the coalition that brought us to full inclusion today, where remarking on it at times felt like an afterthought. But the passage of that bill in '07, and a House floor amendment on religious exemptions that year, which passed 402-35, had a positive bearing in bringing the Republicans to the table and brought some all the way to "aye." For that I thank you, Congressman Barney Frank and Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Sitting in the gallery today, along with Americans of all backgrounds who had come simply to experience the United States Senate, I wondered which child sitting there might someday be speaking down on the floor. Which teen, working to improve her own little world as I did mine with dress code reform nearly a half-century ago, would be the lead sponsor of a future expansion of civil rights?

Now the coalitions that have worked to bring this victory to fruition -- Americans for Workplace Opportunity, Freedom to Work, and all our allies, Republican as well as Democrat -- can happily celebrate tonight. And tomorrow morning it's back to work on the Republican side of the House. It doesn't seem quite so daunting from this side of today.