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Rethinking the 'Gay agenda'
Rethinking the 'Gay agenda'
by Chris Crain - SGN Contributing Writer

This year's presidential primaries have been so exciting that it's important that those who care about the Gay rights movement remember to focus on what exactly we want from the new president and Congress next year.

Disenchantment with President Bush has greatly improved the odds that either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will beat John McCain in November. The Democrats are also very likely to solidify their control of Congress, since a remarkably high number of Republican members of the House are retiring this year and the one-third of the Senate up for re-election includes many more GOP seats.

But if all goes well for the Democrats in November, what will be the top items on their "Gay agenda"? It's critically important that we - Gay and Lesbian Americans - set that agenda, rather than having it dictated to us by the Democratic Party. Politics is by nature self-serving, and politicians from both parties will always reach for the low-hanging fruit unless pressured to actually risk some political capital.

That's actually been the strategy of the movement's leaders as well, at least since 1996. That's when they scrapped legislation seeking to add "sexual orientation" to existing civil rights laws that cover employment, housing and public accommodation. They replaced that broad bill with the narrow Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The idea was that polls showed the public most sympathetic to someone being fired for being Lesbian or Gay, and it was important to get some - any - federal Gay rights law on the books. And it almost worked. The Senate came within a vote of passing ENDA, and Bill Clinton was certainly ready to sign it.

More than a decade later, it's past time to reexamine whether ENDA should still be at the top of the Gay agenda for Congress. For one thing, states and local governments have gone a long way to bridge the gap. Today, more than half the U.S. population lives in areas where non-discrimination laws include "sexual orientation," and the dramatic changes in the culture in the last 10 years have made discrimination far less common in the other half of the country as well.

In addition, the growing influence of Transgender activists and their allies within the movement opened up a difficult and divisive debate last fall about what to do if the votes aren't there for including "gender identity" in ENDA as well - do we go forward with the Gay-only ENDA that has been introduced every year until 2007, or wait until there's enough support for Transgender protections as well?

As a result of that division, ENDA is no longer the most likely legislation to break the barrier on federal Gay rights legislation. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, which includes Gay and Transgender protections and has already passed both houses of Congress in different forms, is - in terms of popularity - "the new ENDA."

With a Gay-friendlier Congress and White House, the hate crimes bill should become law fairly quickly and without much controversy. But a divisive and risky ENDA shouldn't be next on the list.

The highest legislative priorities of the movement ought to be redressing where the government itself is discriminating against Lesbian and Gay Americans - especially when that unequal treatment is widespread, affecting almost all of us and in a significant way.

Measured that way, the next priority ought to be repealing the Defense of Marriage Act - at least the portion that blocks federal recognition of valid marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples by the states. Repealing DOMA should be accompanied by a bill that treats state-issued civil unions and domestic partnerships like marriages under federal law as well.

Two-thirds of the public already supports Gay marriage or civil unions, so the support is already there.

Marriage is certainly more universal than job discrimination. More than 90 percent of Americans get married at some point in their lives, and given the hefty number of Gays in that remaining 10 percent, it's safe to say almost all of us will enter into a committed, long-term relationship at some point in our lives.

Workplace regulation, however justifiable, faces non-bigoted objections about the government intruding into the private sector. Even libertarians who are broadly supportive of Gay rights object to ENDA on this ground.

It's also true that many more Gay and Lesbian Americans would marry, if they could, than are fired from their jobs due to their sexual orientation. And while it's relatively easy to get another job in the diverse U.S. economy - or move to a state that has Gay workplace protections - the hundreds of legal rights that come from federal recognition of our relationships are irreplaceable.

Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade and five other Gay publications and now edits GayNewsWatch.com. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com.

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