Gay activists hold back controversial bill

Congress: The US House of Representatives chamber in Washington, DC

Gay American activists have succeeded in stalling the progress of an equality bill which excluded trans people.

The landmark civil rights bill, which would protect the American LGBT community from workplace discrimination, provoked outrage in the gay community when its leading proponents – Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank – opted to exclude transsexuals from its remit in a bid to ensure its success in the House.

The debate over the rights and wrongs of that exclusion have provoked an unprecedented debate among gay activists about how far they are prepared to relax their principles in order to achieve change.

In short – would it be better to compromise and attain long hallowed anti-discrimination rights or retract from the current bill and fight for the rights of the entire community?

Gay groups stressed that if transsexuals and transvestites are excluded from the bill, they will be unlikely to win protection at a later date.

Ms Pelosi and Mr Frank – both long-term fighters for gay rights – argue that including transsexuals will make the bill impossible to pass, and that the half-way measure at least secures vital rights for the gay community.

But that same gay community overwhelmingly opted for solidarity with their transsexual allies yesterday morning when several leading gay rights groups withdrew their support for the bill.

Nearly a hundred gay groups signed a letter to that effect and sent it to every member of the House.

It stated “very clearly and unequivocally that we refuse to accept and in fact we oppose any legislation that leaves any part of our community behind, particularly the transgender community,” Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“This is a watershed moment in the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement. The last five days have been one of the most gruelling and difficult we have ever faced, but our community has rallied in ways we’ve never seen before.”

That unity now appears to have had the desired effect.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Barney Frank and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin issued a statement yesterday afternoon announcing a delay in the passage of the bill, and thereby giving activists time to fight for the inclusion of all LGBT groups.

The statement said: “After discussions with congressional leaders and organisations supporting passage of [the bill], we have agreed to schedule mark-up of the bill in the Committee on Education and Labour later this month, followed by a vote in the full House.

“This schedule will allow proponents of the legislation to continue their discussions with Members in the interest of passing the broadest possible bill.”

But Mr Frank made his support for the exclusion bill well understood. In an impassioned statement, he said: “The question facing us – the LGBT community and the tens of millions of others who are active supporters of our fight against prejudice – is whether we should pass up the chance to adopt a very good bill because it has one major gap.

He continued: “I believe that it would be a grave error to let this opportunity to pass a sexual orientation nondiscrimination bill go forward, not simply because it is one of the most important advances we’ll have made in securing civil rights for all Americans in decades, but because moving forward on this bill now will also better serve the ultimate goal of including people who are transgender than simply accepting total defeat today.”

But the passing of the bill, in whatever form, will not be the end of the story.

Even if the bill were to pass both chambers, many political analysts believe President Bush will simply veto the proposals.