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Keeping the T in ENDA

In a strange turn of events, Congress appears to have listened to public outrage over a proposed bill, and responded by reconsidering its stance. The bill in question is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which initially aimed to protect people from being fired for being LGBT. The outrage came when Democrats tried to drop the T, on the theory that it would be too difficult to pass otherwise. Votes on the bill have been postponed while the leadership works out how to address the pro-T objections.

I find the pragmatic rationale for dropping the T unconvincing. No ENDA will make it into law before January 2009, because either version would be vetoed by President Bush (assuming Republicans aren't able to use procedural tricks to kill it in Congress -- tricks which they'd use against either version), and neither version would have enough votes to override.

This year's ENDA fight is not a matter of pragmatic law-creation. It's a matter of clarifying where people stand and establishing the agenda, preparing the terms of debate for the day when the pragmatic battle is winnable. The version of ENDA that goes forward this year will set the standard or benchmark for the ENDA that is voted on in 2009.

Why, though, is it important for protection for trans people to be included in that benchmark? Many LGB people don't see why Ts don't have their own, separate movement. What does a gay man have in common with a straight cross-dresser?

The link between LGB and T is the grounds of discrimination against them. Homophobia and transphobia are both about resistance to non-conformity with gender norms. To the bigoted mind, being attracted to members of the same sex (that is, being attracted to the people that a member of the other sex should be attracted to) is just one among many forms of gender non-conformity. That's why lesbians are stereotyped as being extremely butch, and gay men are stereotyped as being highly effeminate. That's why bigoted parents will read a son's interest in (feminine) dance as a sign of gayness and enroll him in (masculine) little league as a corrective. It makes little sense to say that the fight for the right to be nonconformist in your choice of romantic partner should be separated from the fight for the right to be nonconformist in your way of dressing, choice of name and pronouns, chemical or surgical alteration of your body, etc. (And this is why feminism is at least a half-sibling to the LGBT movement, since resistance to gender nonconformity is a source of resistance to women's rights alongside resistance to the equal value of women qua ("normal") women.)

The gender nonconformity link also means that leaving the T out of ENDA creates a potential loophole for discrimination. Under the T-less ENDA, you can't fire someone for who they want to date, but you can fire them if you can find some other type of gender nonconformity. If a person is LGB, a bigoted employer will be extra-attuned to any other gender-nonconformity that they exhibit, including things that would pass unnoticed in a straight employee. This loophole won't be exploited in every case (either because employers don't think of it, because they fear courts wouldn't buy it, because many LGBs do conform in other ways, because the nonconformity in question can be classed under the giant exception for dress codes that the ENDA-with-T unfortunately still includes, or because their conception of their employee's nonconformity is too tied up in their identity as LGB so they can't separate out any other nonconformities). But it's not quite right to say that we can fully protect LGBs now and address Ts separately at a later date.

Stentor Danielson, 10:32, |


Poorly-Defined Hobgoblins

Hugo Schwyzer is a fan of one of my least favorite aphorisms* -- Ralph Waldo Emerson's claim that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Hobgoblinism makes a lofty-sounding reply to any accusations of inconsistency, but I think it's problematic.

If hobgoblinism means the denial of any relevance for consistency -- as seems to be suggested by Schwyzer's comment that the word "foolish" in the quote is redundant -- it leads immediately to relativism. Rational argument works by demanding consistency between propositions, evidence, etc. So it's not surprising that few hobgoblinists (including Schwyzer himself in a later comment) would hold that hobgoblinism applies universally.

But if hobgoblinism's scope is limited, the critical question becomes defining its scope. What forms of consistency count as "foolish"? I have yet to find anyone even attempting to put some substance on that criterion (not even Emerson himself, as Bartleby's snarkily notes) -- either in terms of universal standards of foolishness, or in terms of why the specific consistency at issue is or is not a foolish one. Quoting the aphorism is treated as a final word. But without some specificity to the idea of foolish consistency, limited hobgoblinism collapses into universal hobgoblinism.

I do think there's a grain of truth to hobgoblinism. Truth must be consistent, and so inconsistency is always a marker that we don't quite have things right. But consistency need not be pursued at all costs. Consistency in one obvious context may force us into more significant inconsistencies somewhere else. There may be reasons we have not yet clarified that show why an apparent inconsistency is not actually inconsistent. We may have other good reasons to hold each of the inconsistent beliefs in their own domains. How a given inconsistency should be resolved may be unclear at the moment. In each of these cases, however, the acceptance of inconsistency is a provisional reservation of judgment, not a high-minded rejection of hobgoblins.

*My very least favorite is the Margaret Mead quote about small groups changing the world, which I think would make a good motto for al-Qaida.

Stentor Danielson, 09:55, |


Making The Best Of Bad News

Yesterday Larry Cirignano was acquitted of pushing my friend Sarah Loy while she was counter-protesting an anti-marriage rally that he was involved in. I think this is the wrong result, but there are two silver linings. First, the decision was made by a jury following a trial in which both sides got to present their evidence. None of the repeated attempts to skirt the judicial process by having the charges thrown out, making a settlement, or intimidating Loy with a last-minute criminal complaint were successful.

Second, the decision appears to be based on the theory that Loy tripped over someone's foot while Cirignano was escorting her out. This is the most plausible of the many ridiculous and inconsistent theories that have been expounded by people on the anti-marriage side both outside and inside the courtroom (theories which include that Cirignano never even touched her, and that she's a professional actress who deliberately took a dive).

Stentor Danielson, 09:09, |