Tag Archives: ENDA

Fighting a losing battle

As I’ve said repeatedly since I began blogging, we’re in the midst of rapid-fire change when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Sometimes I read the news headlines, or scan my Facebook news feed, and I feel like Billy Joel’s singing a contemporary version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Pennsylvania, Oregon, trans exclusions all gone! Football, RuPaul, Hedwig’s angry inch. Not bad, huh?) This week, three of those events caught my attention:

  • Last weekend, the Texas Republican Party adopted a party platform for 2014 that includes support of reparative therapy, a psychological approach that claims, despite being heavily discredited, to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
  • This past week, the Wall Street journal ran an opinion piece written by Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. This piece was likely written in response to the Obama administration’s decision to reverse a 1981 policy that excluded gender reassignment surgery from coverage under Medicare. McHugh, in contrast, believes strongly that being transgender is “a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”  (A New York Times editorial, which ran a few days earlier, provided a much more pro-transgender perspective on this issue).
  • And last Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. In that interview, when asked about her decision to include transgender rights along with lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns, she said, “LBGT includes the “T,” and I wanted to stand up for the entire community. I don’t believe that people who are the L, the G, the B, or the T should be persecuted, assaulted, imprisoned, even killed for who they are.” (Full disclosure: She then, in a heated exchange with Gross, embarked on a clunky defense of her initial opposition to same-sex marriage.)

So hold on a minute. The Texas Republican party is supporting reparative therapy, even though a lot of highly respected professional organizations have issued public statements about how dangerous it is? A major news publication is running a piece declaring that transgender people are, by definition, mentally ill – even though the DSM-5 doesn’t include “transgender” as a mental disorder? Except for Hillary Clinton’s breath of fresh air (pun absolutely intended), these news articles seem like they could have been written 30 years ago.

Except they weren’t. This is happening today, in 2014. After the Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, and so many states have legalized same-sex marriage. After two states have banned reparative therapy for minors. After we’ve been closer than ever to passing an inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Of course, lots of people have continued to believe that being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or in any way gender nonconforming, is sinful, wrong, or sick, and that granting rights to LGBTQ people merely enables our “condition.” But coming out publicly, on large political and media stages, and stating these views is rising to new levels. It’s almost like the anti-LGBTQ rights folks are saying, This shit’s gotta stop. Time to end this nonsense. 

Some might say that this is a perfect example of a backlash – a powerful, almost violent, reaction against progressive change. Back in 1991, Susan Faludi wrote a bestselling book titled Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, in which she discusses the conservatism of the 1980s as a reactive response against the gains of various social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’m not sure “backlash” is the most accurate term. It’s more like a last, desperate gasp for air. These folks see that “one-man-one-woman” marriage statutes are tumbling down like dominoes. They see that ENDA now has bipartisan support in Congress. They see transgender rights gaining serious traction. And then they see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine (oh, HELL no!), and seeing how close they are to the tug-of-war pit, they gather up every last bit of strength and start yanking on that rope as hard as they can.

What makes people dig their heels in so deeply, even though they know they’re fighting a losing battle? Why doesn’t someone like Paul McHugh budge – even just a little – on his beliefs, even when they conflict with the scientific consensus? Why does some factions of the Republican Party swing further to the right, even though they’re losing constituency groups? They’re on a sinking ship – why don’t they jump off?

I’ve scoured the psychological literature, in search of an answer to this question. And unfortunately, it hasn’t offered much. Some researchers point to personality characteristics, like the “authoritarian personality” – what psychologist Theodor Adorno thought reflected the “potentially fascistic individual.” From this standpoint, certain types of people are just more likely than others to dig in their heels and stay there. Other researchers view this stubbornness as a variation of the fight-or-flight response, a reaction to a perceived imminent threat. What that threat is certainly is up for debate; it could be a threat to one’s status and power, or it could be a more intrapsychic threat – a threat to one’s masculinity, for example, or a threat to one’s heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s a form of aggrieved entitlement, a variation of fight-or-flight and a concept I’ve written about in past blog posts – a feeling that one’s identity, status, and culture is being taken away from them, and a need to stand one’s ground against those changes.

Maybe it’s all of these. Or perhaps it’s none of these. Either way, research isn’t offering me great answers. At least, nothing that’s making me feel better.

When I’m surrounded by disturbing, uncomfortable, or distressing behavior, I tend to seek solace in the intellectual. If I can explain it, my reasoning goes, then perhaps I can have some control over it – and understanding is a form of control. Freud called this “intellectualization,” or “flight into reason.” (Freudian scholars, just to be clear, don’t see this as a particularly healthy form of coping.) To be honest, I’m distressed by the GOP’s party-line endorsement of reparative therapy. I’m distressed by Paul McHugh’s pathologizing statements about transgender people and surgery. And here I am, trying to explain their behavior, partly in an attempt to educate, but mostly in an attempt to just feel better. Because having large groups of people hating on you and wanting to fix you just feels yucky.

How did the song go? Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! The Cola Wars may be over (or perhaps, in light of the New York City soda ban, we’re in a new Cola War), but I can absolutely relate to feeling overwhelmed by political attacks. Especially when those attacks my identity, and my family, and my community. Often, intellectualizing pulls me through. Direct action works wonders too. But sometimes, as odd as it sounds, giving myself the space to just feel yucky helps move me forward. Because really, the only way out of the yuckiness is through it. If I’m fighting a losing battle with my feelings, I’m being just as stubborn as the people that are causing me distress.





Filed under activism, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, same-sex marriage, transphobia

The gift of Chai

This month’s issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide features an interview with Chai Feldblum, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Feldblum was appointed in March 2010 by President Obama as the first out lesbian commissioner on the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Feldblum, in my opinion, is a rock star when it comes to LGBTQ activism. Although her activist efforts have fanned out in various directions, she’s probably best known for her role in drafting and advocating for an inclusive form of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which, if passed, would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. This – the topic of ENDA – was the major focus of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide article.

But there’s much more to Chai Feldblum than ENDA. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family (her father was a Holocaust survivor), Feldblum’s social justice work began early in her career. She clerked for Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe v. Wade majority opinion (and who also wrote the dissenting opinion in the Bowers v. Hardwick anti-sodomy case). She served as Legislative Counsel to the AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was the legal director for the Campaign for Military Service, a group which lobbied to overturn policies forbidding gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the U.S. military. And just five years after she graduated from law school, she was the lead attorney on the team that drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Of course, Feldblum herself, who is an avid tweeter, provides the most concise biographical sketch (in 140 characters or less):

First out lesbian EEOC Commissioner (and with a disability); Georgetown law prof (on leave); tweets on civil rights; discrimination buster.

In Feldblum’s Twitter profile, her disability status is included as a parethetical. In the Gay and Lesbian Review article, it isn’t mentioned at all. If you Google “Chai Feldblum” along with “disability,” you’ll find lots of information about her role in developing the Americans with Disabilities Act – and you’ll learn about other ways she’s been active in disability rights. However, the only place you’ll find anything about Feldblum’s own disability status is – you guessed it – in her Twitter profile. It’s not mentioned on her EEOC page (which isn’t surprising, since personal information like that isn’t typically included on federal government websites). But it’s also not mentioned in most LGBTQ publications that have written stories about her.

In the political sphere, keeping visible disabilities on the down-low certainbly isn’t a new thing. During his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public appearances were carefully choreographed in order to conceal any evidence of his disability. But this disability down-low isn’t unique to the political arena – in my opinion, the LGBTQ community is not particularly disability-inclusive. Few LGBTQ disability organizations exist – some have fizzled out entirely (such as BFLAG, for blind LGBTQs), others are entirely volunteer-run (such as the Deaf Queer Resource Center [DQRC]). And yet, disability is something that the LGBTQ community needs to be paying attention to.

For one thing, LGBTQ people are certainly not immune to disabilities. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen, Hyun-Jun Kim, and Susan Barkan of the University of Washington found that, in a large-scale population-based sample, the prevalence of disability is higher among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults than among their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, according to Debra Harley of the University of Kentucky, it’s estimated that 11% of LGB individuals – about 4 million people – have a disability. In more than a few cases, homophobia may have a direct causal link to one’s disability. Being victimized by a violent hate crime can result in a temporary or permanent disability. Being subjected to the chronic and ongoing stresses of homophobia is thought by several researchers to be associated with various autoimmune conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Disability status and sexual minority status, it seems, share some common ground.

Even though the rates of disability are high in the LGBTQ community, there isn’t really a climate of inclusiveness for these identities. The fact is, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia exist in the disability community, and stigmatization against people with disabilities occurs in the LGBTQ community. Because of this, LGBTQ people with disabilities might face an allegiance dilemma: should I identify as “disabled,” align with the disability community, and get involved in disability rights – or should I identify as queer and fight for LGBTQ rights? There is great pressure for people with multiple minority statuses to reduce themselves to a single identity – a dehumanizing force that contributes powerfully to social isolation.

The irony in all of this is that disability politics probably aren’t all that different from LGBTQ politics. People with invisible disabilities face the dilemma of whether to “come out” about their disability status. The disability community, like the LGBTQ community, debates whether the disability rights movement is best served through assimilating into mainstream, able-bodied culture, or by demanding acceptance of differences. The disability rights movement – just like the LGBTQ rights movement – has relied on both legislative actions and various forms of radicalism and civil disobedience. And, even with these striking similarities, the LGBTQ community has done little to align itself with disability rights.

In Hebrew, “chai” means “life” – a word and symbol that is a cornerstone of Jewish culture. I think Chai Feldblum has lived up to her name – her activism continues to breathe life into both the LGBTQ rights and disability rights movements. And if anyone understands the lived experience and challenges of intersectionality, it would be her. If I get lucky enough to secure an interview with her, you’ll be hearing more about this lived experience in my upcoming book.

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Filed under biphobia, disability, health, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, LGBTQ, psychological research, transphobia

I love my job, I love my job!


To come out, or not to come out? That is the question.

In fact, for many LGBTQ people, it’s a dilemma that arises every day, across various situations, over and over again. And when the stakes are high and protections are low – which is often the case in the workplace – the decision of whether or not to come out can feel like a zero-sum game. We want to be true to ourselves, and we know that staying in the closet has huge consequences. And yet, being out without any kind of legal protections can also have huge consequences.

This issue came up on my radar screen last week, when I attended and participated in our college’s first-ever LGBT conference. At this conference, the keynote speaker, who was a public school teacher and Ph.D. candidate, spoke about his painful decision to closet himself at work, despite the fact that for many years he had been openly gay in all other aspects of his life. His talk clearly touched a nerve, for throughout this past week students, faculty, and staff who attended the conference have been engaging in heated debate about this issue. And while some comments have evoked some compassion, many people I’ve talked to have reacted with criticism and hostility:

He’s setting a bad example by going back into the closet.

He’s certainly not doing the gay community any favors.

What kind of message does that send to his students – particularly his LGBT students who are struggling with acceptance?

Before we vilify or exonerate this individual for his decision, let’s take a moment to consider the landscape of the workplace. In 29 states, it is legal to fire someone simply for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. In 38 states, it’s legal to fire someone for being transgender. In a recent study conducted by Harvard researcher Andras Tilcsik, when a person’s gay identity is revealed on a resume, that person is 40% less likely to get a job interview than a person who is heterosexual or who conceals his or her sexual identity. This finding was particularly true in Southern and Midwestern states – the “red” states on the map shown above – which lack any kind of workplace protections for LGBTQ employees.

Of course, there’s two sides to every story, right? While it may not be advantageous in all circumstances to be out at work, being closeted has its own set of consequences. As quoted in “The Power of Out,” a recently-published report by the Center for Work-Life Policy, “Staying in the closet has huge consequences. Those who are out flourish at work, while those who are in the closet languish or leave.” People who are not out at work are 75 percent more likely to feel isolated than those who are out, and mental health professionals know that isolation is strongly correlated with depression. This finding isn’t surprising – hiding such a significant part of your identity will certainly prevent you from connecting with others. Not only do those workplace relationships promote emotional and psychological well-being, they can also help us get ahead in our careers. Knowing people and utilizing those connections helps us move up the career ladder – without those connections, closeted LGBTQs are at a serious disadvantage when those promotion decisions are made. And the data seem to back this up – “The Power of Out” reports that being in the closet can negatively affect job satisfaction and growth; compared to those who are out, closeted gay men are about 50% less satisfied with their rate of promotion, and they are 73 percent more likely to consider leaving their places of employment. 

So let’s circle back to the keynote speaker, who decided to closet himself in the workplace. Is he protecting himself so he can stay employed and remain in the good graces of his colleagues, or is he inadvertently contributing to his own job dissatisfaction? While this is a personal decision, I think it’s an issue that has deep systemic and institutional roots. If we lived in a country where the employment rights of all LGBTQ people were protected, we wouldn’t have to make these painful decisions. Blaming the victim only perpetuates the problem. Recognizing the deep taproots of homophobia and oppression and working to eliminate them puts us in the solution.  

 The Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA), if approved, would extend protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice to LGBT employees across the country. It has been introduced in every Congress since 1994, and, in its most current form, it includes gender identity as well as sexual orientation protections. If we want to be in the solution, this looks like a good place to start.


Filed under coming out, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized