Congress Holds Landmark Hearing on Transgender Rights

Congress held its first-ever hearing on transgender rights last week, courtesy of the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., invited a panel of transgender individuals and advocates to offer testimony about what he called fundamental violations of civil rights in the workplace.

"I feel strongly that someone's presentation has nothing to do with how they do their job and I aspire to the time when the law will protect these people," Andrews said in his opening statement.

The June 26 hearing was Congress' first major look at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender discrimination since November, when the House passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Transgender Policy a 'Political Risk'

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who's openly gay, had introduced a highly controversial amendment to the original bill that offered protections specifically for transgender men and women. House Democrats persuaded House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., the only other openly gay member of Congress, to strike the amendment so the bill would have enough votes to pass.

"So many elected leaders are afraid of the way the issue will be demagogued," Andrews said after Thursday's hearing. "There is a political risk in associating oneself with an unpopular group."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had promised that the 110th Congress would return to the issue of gender identity injustice when the explicit language extending civil rights to transgender individuals was dropped.

It is difficult to calculate exactly how many transgender individuals live in the United States because of societal stigmas and the complexity of understanding and defining the condition. But the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that the number of transgenders could range anywhere from a quarter of a percent to one percent of the U.S. population, or as many as 3 million people.

Although 11 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, millions of transgender individuals remain largely unprotected from being fired with no legal recourse.

Col. Diane J. Shroer, a former airborne Ranger, testified that she accepted a job at the Library of Congress as a terrorism expert after retiring from the United States Army. When she told her boss she would be transitioning from "David" to "Diane," she was informed she would no longer be "a good fit" for the Library.

"I knew that whether I was David or Diane, I would provide excellent research support to the Congress," she said. "I had truly thought my future supervisor would feel the same way."

'A Disgraceful Injustice'

Diego Miguel Sanchez, born female, described telling his parents when he 5 that he was "born wrong." A supportive family and a lucrative career allowed Sanchez to eventually make the transformation from female to male.

"But when my head hits the pillow every night, I close my eyes and think about my friends who are transgender whose lives aren't so easy," he said.

Sanchez, now the director of public relations at the AIDS Action Committee, described the persecution a number of his friends endured as a result of their gender identity, referencing two who had committed suicide as a result.

"These are good people who can't get work and whose lives are cast to the streets in large cities and small towns," Sanchez said. "It's a disgraceful injustice."

Advocates Call for Formal Transgender Policies

Sabrina Marcus Taraboletti echoed Sanchez's testimony as she described what happened when she told her superiors in the United States Space Program that she would be changing her sex from male to female. Although Taraboletti had served as an engineer for the program for 20 years, she was fired six weeks after her announcement; just like the three individuals before her.

Taraboletti blamed their failure on the absence of formal transgender policies or procedures at the space center.

"My future, therefore, was left up to the interpretation of people who have no education in transgender issues or needs," she said.

A few members of the panel voiced concern over such legislation.

A Workplace Disruption?

JC Miller, a lawyer at Thompson Hine in Washington, D.C., said while it is critical to recognize diversity and protect employees, to do so is expensive. She said any statute imposed by Congress would overburden business owners and likely leave them vulnerable to lawsuits.

"As any legislation that mandates a change in the workplace is disruptive," Miller said, "that disruption should be kept to a minimum."

Miller urged Congress either not to interfere with employer/employee relations or to make its bill highly specific in language and definitions.

Congressman Frank directly addressed the argument that passing another law may be unnecessary or disruptive.

Offering emotional testimony laden with personal reflections, Frank urged his fellow members of Congress to cease the denial of human rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens and to work diligently to protect them.

"We are talking about responding as a compassionate society," he said. "These individuals are not now protected by the law. Can't you help them?"