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Challenges in Pushing for a Non-Discrimination Act for LGBT Employees

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GetEqual's Dan Choi speaks out in favor of repealing the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and of passing the Employee Non-Discriminiation Act (ENDA).

CREDIT: Flickr / kptyson

As Washington, D.C., cleared out last month for the August recess, organizers with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and GetEqual didn't view the time as a vacation. Two national LGBT civil rights groups are pushing for a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and repeal of the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy.

Jeremy Pittman, HRC’s deputy field director, says his group, the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the nation, launched their “Countdown 2010” initiative this summer to reach out to citizens and encourage them to be in contact with their elected officials.

“Countdown 2010 is a campaign designed to get supporters of equality around the country talking to their members of Congress during the August recess,” he says. “The program is set up to provide supporters of equality with all the tools they need to be in touch with their members of Congress by phone, email or for in-person meetings.”

Among those tools, he says, is the Countdown 2010 website. There, voters and constituents are given the information they need for effective communication and advocacy, including personalized lists of their House and Senate representatives. The activists also get those legislators’ positions on ENDA and DADT as well as prepared “messages” to deliver if constituents choose to call, email, or meet with their elected officials.

Pittman says the site has generated tens of thousands of messages to Congress.

Two approaches, one goal

Like HRC, GetEqual has similar goals for pushing ENDA and repeal of DADT before the end of the year. The group is a fairly new organization formed out of the mass grassroots organizing largely sparked after the passage of California’s ballot initiative repealing same-sex marriage, Prop 8.

GetEqual has pushed its “ENDA Summer” campaign during the August recess. They urge supporters in 15 targeted states to schedule meetings with select representatives or organize rallies, protests, or direct actions.

In Indiana, one of the states GetEqual’s is targeting, supporters recently confronted Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) at a town hall meeting on youth homelessness. The organizers asked him about his support for ENDA and connected youth homelessness back to the issue. Because LGBT youth have no job protections, they say, many end up living on the streets and unable to support themselves. Many GetEqual supporters have used Congress’ recess as a time to organize. Several actions, protests, sit-ins, or rallies are planned for California, Illinois, Mississippi, Oregon, and Pennsylvania this week or next. Further organizing is still planned in the group’s other targeted states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Heather Cronk, the group’s managing director, says it is important that LGBT people hold elected officials accountable on equality issues.

“Part of [the ENDA Summer campaign] for us has been this drumbeat we’ve had going the last couple months around ENDA, building the case that our legislators have made promises repeatedly and broken those promises,” she says. “There has to be some kind of accountability for that.”

Cronk says that message has resonated with community members: “We’ve been creating this narrative that has invited people into that system of broken promises. As a result, people are more willing to take action.”

Despite the similarity of their goals, HRC’s and GetEqual’s tactics are very different. Controversial among some LGBT advocates and leaders, GetEqual’s tactics have included direct actions, sit-ins, and civil disobedience. In July, eight members of the group—including DADT-discharged Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi—were arrested after blocking traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard, holding an oversize banner pressuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring ENDA to a vote. Later that week at Netroots Nation, he presented Reid with his West Point ring for Reid to keep until DADT is repealed. Other protests, in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the Capitol Rotunda and elsewhere, have also ended in arrests. 

Cronk readily accepts—and, in fact, is quite proud of—GetEqual’s efforts to distinguish itself from other national LGBT advocacy organizations.  “Certainly lobbying Congress and writing letters is fine, but the folks in the GetEqual community are more interested in ratcheting the pressure up a little,” she says.

GetEqual’s more radical message and tactics aren’t reserved for liberal meccas in the northeast or on the west coast.

“More everyday people are stepping up,” Cronk says. “We have an organizer in Mississippi who has a really, really difficult time organizing there but is so tired of being asked not to do anything substantial, or being left behind for the wolves. Part of this for us is creating that more substantial narrative around those broken promises and encouraging people to take action and own their equality.”

'It’s ridiculous we’re still having this conversation.'

The divide between more traditional education and mobilization efforts and those undertaken by GetEqual and other grassroots groups has been painted by some as damaging and harmful to the larger movement for LGBT equality. But there is a more problematic concern both groups say they’re trying to tackle: The lack of education and awareness, especially on employment discrimination, and the resulting lack of movement on those issues.

Cronk says focus group research on ENDA messaging has revealed a severe lack of education on the issue. “Folks in the focus groups fought them on whether they were already protected by employment non-discrimination laws,” she asserts. “No one can believe we are having this conversation on this issue in 2010, both LGBT people and straight allies. It’s ridiculous we’re still having this conversation.”  Nearly 30 states have some legal protections—statutes or executive orders—against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and, in some cases, gender identity.  Presidents Clinton and Obama have issued orders providing such protections for employees of the federal government, but there are no federal laws providing such protections.

HRC’s Pittman says face-to-face outreach is just as important as online organizing when trying to get the message out.

“We do know parts of the country that are priorities for us,” he says. “In those places, given the resources, we will deploy field organizers on the ground and actually have them do direct voter education—going to community fairs or farmers’ markets, PFLAG [Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays] meetings or churches, or any place where there are voters to talk to people about ENDA and the critical legislation we are working on.”

Pittman says organizers have all the information community members need, and they can help constituents reach out to their elected officials right then and there.

“Normally one of our tried-and-true tactics is to ask people to sign a petition and ask if they are willing to make a call right there,” he says. “We dial the number for them and hand them the phone so they can leave a message.”

That tactic doesn’t impress Cronk. “Writing a letter [to Congress] hasn’t worked for 30 years, and it won’t work now,” she says.

The need to personalize the ENDA story

GetEqual maintains a more forceful effort is needed if the community ever hopes to achieve success on its issues. Messaging has been part of the problem.

“ENDA has been more difficult to push that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ we’ve been able to personalize that issue, so the movement around ‘don’t ask, don’t tell' has been different than around ENDA,” she says. “With ENDA, it is difficult to personalize that and wrap an individual story around it.”

Further, Cronk says, advocacy organizations are finding it hard to educate community members while simultaneously trying to encourage action and organizing.

“It’s really difficult to do the education at the same time you’re trying to get people to take action,” she says. “It is a different from ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ where it has been easier to mobilize people because it is personal and a very public law. With ENDA, you have to do the education and the action, and that’s a bigger role to play.”

LGBT activists and opinion makers have varied theories on why ENDA has failed to move.

At Bilerico, a high-profile LGBTQ group blog, Dr. Jillian T. Weiss, a GetEqual’s board chair, said national advocacy leaders’ disinterest in issues like employment protections has contributed to the stall.

“Gay Inc.,” Weiss wrote, referring to national LGBT leaders, “made a decision in the early 2000s to move away from targeting traditional civil rights movement discrimination, and concentrate almost exclusively on marriage equality via the ‘good as you’ theme. I believe the thinking was that the campaign for marriage equality would drag the rest along in its wake.”

Weiss continued, “That agenda came from our advocacy leaders, who live in an environment insulated from most LGBT people in terms of economics, education, and culture. But most LGBT people are also not necessarily prepared to do such analysis in understanding why their advocacy leaders would push them into marriage equality as the number one issue.”

Activist Joe Mirabella, also writing at Bilerico.com, echoes Cronk’s sentiments: ENDA has not been personalized to the extent DADT has.

“Our own community failed to deliver clear messaging for ENDA,” he wrote. “The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell has been supported by an amazing team of messengers, particularly [Servicemembers Legal Defense Network] who provided the press with enough information to turn out a story in 30 minutes or less. They did so every single day for the last several months.”

Status of ENDA

Karen Ocamb, an LGBT journalist who writes for Los Angele’s Frontiers magazine, says it isn’t likely to expect mass community education or action on ENDA in such a short time period, “unless there is a crisis that can be used to whip up attention and concern.”

She adds, “We’ve been repeatedly told that ENDA is ‘on track,’ but it’s not on the Speaker’s agenda for this year.”

During an election season, she says, a mass education campaign will be something no one cares about as it competes with campaigning efforts.

Going forward, Cronk says, the LGBT community will have to make ENDA a priority, and focus on the facts. She says ENDA isn’t a controversial bill and elected officials are far behind public opinion.

“What we are seeing is a tragic lack of courage,” she says. “This is political homophobia and political transphobia. We need [elected officials] to do the right thing.”

Matt Comer is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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