Optimistic Voices Heard on Capitol Hill

By Deb Price

January 11, 2009 4 min read

If Hollywood made a movie of the last Congress on gay issues, "The Pragmatist vs. the Idealist" would someday play at a theater near you.

The pragmatist was the colorful and brilliant bulldog Rep. Barney Frank, who arrived in Congress in 1981 as a closeted gay man, came out on his own in 1987 and admirably chose to become a voice for gay America in the "people's house."

The idealist was the ever-optimistic Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who carries the can-do spirit of someone gutsy enough to run for Congress in 1998 as a lesbian — and win.

In the fall of 2007, the duo respectfully aired their differences over strategy to pass hugely important legislation:

Frank essentially argued that the votes were there to outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not if the bill included "gender identity" to protect transgender workers. Baldwin countered that it was worth pushing for a House vote on an inclusive bill, because transgender Americans shouldn't be left out.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi eventually stepped in. And in a historic first, the sexual orientation-only measure passed the House 235 to 184, with 35 Republicans among those voting "yes."

On the House floor, Baldwin inspiringly promised transgender Americans that "our job will not be finished until you, too, share fully in the American dream."

Fast-forward to Jan. 6, 2009, when the new Congress convened and I caught up with Frank and Baldwin.

Both are upbeat about the prospects for Congress to pass a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), as well as a trans-inclusive hate crimes bill.

Saying they sense more support this year for a trans-inclusive ENDA, both pointed to last June's first-ever congressional hearing on discrimination against transgender workers and to increased lobbying by trans-Americans and their allies.

"The transgender community is lobbying the way you need to do this," Frank said. "I always tell our people we should be like the (National Rifle Association) and go member by member and lobby them.

"I am very optimistic we will get hate crimes signed by this summer," Frank added. "And gays in the military probably next year, after we've done Iraq. And ENDA in the fall, depending on how things work."

Taking a page from the pragmatist's script, Baldwin thinks lifting the military ban likely will take more time, but added, "The pivotal difference this session is that we're playing for real now. It's not an exercise in passing legislation through one or both houses just to have it vetoed by the president. It's very clear that we have in President-elect Obama someone who will be our partner and ally. ... That makes all the difference."

Frank and Baldwin also expect progress on extending partner benefits to gay civilian federal workers.

Baldwin, who unsuccessfully pushed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to treat gay Foreign Service officers' partners equally, hopes the incoming president will take significant steps that don't need congressional approval. For example, by executive order, Obama could ban federal workplace discrimination based on gender identity.

The Senate remains a wild card, especially given the fragile health of gay-rights leader Sen. Edward Kennedy.

But I'll make an early prediction House-side on Frank and Baldwin. The movie title for this Congress: "Dynamic Duo Delivers."

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues. To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

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