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Conservatives seize on the 'T' in LGBT to block gay rights bill

Some conservatives have seized on gender identity to block anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT Americans.
People gather at a vigil for transgender woman Islan Nettles at Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem on August 27, 2013 in New York City.
People gather at a vigil for transgender woman Islan Nettles at Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem on August 27, 2013 in New York City.

When it comes to employment protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, some conservatives have decided to focus their fire on the "T" in LGBT.

The Senate cleared the way Monday for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar discrimination against Americans on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Non-religious employers with more than 15 employees would not be able fire, refuse to hire or promote individuals on those grounds. In most states, you can still be fired because of whom you love or because of your gender identity. As public opinion has turned rapidly in favor of laws protecting Americans from such discrimination, some conservatives have have seized on gender identity as a wedge against LGBT rights.

For the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, the Senate might as well have cleared the way for the apocalypse. "Homosexuals, cross-dressers, and transgendered workers would automatically qualify for special treatment that other workers would not," Perkins wrote in a piece on the organization's website titled "The ENDA of the World as we know it."

"Can you imagine walking into your child's classroom and meeting a teacher dressed in drag?" Perkins asked. 

Other conservative groups have advanced a less inflammatory version of the same argument. "Although ENDA includes some exemptions for religious education," wrote Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson at National Review, "it provides no protection for students in other schools who could be prematurely exposed to questions about sex and gender if, for example, a male teacher returned to school identifying as a woman." A curiously written, but nonetheless panicked, headline at the Weekly Standard noted, "ENDA Would Grant Transgender Rights to Elementary School Teachers."

"They're missing the point, the purpose of the ENDA is about allowing people to keep their jobs and to be judged and evaluated based on the quality of their work, not who they are," said Ross Murray, a spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Children need to learn that all people are people, and they need to be treated with dignity and respect, and part of that dignity and respect is being able to hold a job as a cashier, as a teacher, as a scientist."

The implict belief driving this strategy is that while Americans may have grown comfortable with the idea that families headed by gay or lesbian parents are just like straight families, there's still a level of discomfort with transgender individuals that can be exploited. Yet the expiration date on that strategy may be rapidly arriving -- 17 states have passed laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity without turning their elementary schools into R-rated burlesque shows. 

"We already have several states that provide protections on the basis of gender identity, and they have done well, they have prospered, they have thrived," Murray said. "It's hard to create a scary scenario when this is already happening." Some Republicans oppose such discrimination but take the view that the states should be able to decide whether or not discriminate. 

The focus of anti-gay rights groups on transgender Americans has also manifested at the state level. After Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed an anti-discrimination law allowing transgender students to use the bathroom or participate in school activities that match their gender identity, anti-gay rights groups circulated a story about a transgender student harrassing other students in the girls' bathroom. When that story turned out not to be true, the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group that disseminated the story, explained its view that "the intrusion of a biological male into a restroom for teenage girls is inherently intimidating and harassing."

Republicans in Congress have trod carefully on the issue. Although House Speaker John Boehner has said he will not bring ENDA up for a vote if it passes the Senate, he simply said the legislation would lead to "frivolous lawsuits."

Murray disagrees. "There is nothing frivolous about losing your job."