Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rethinking Barney Frank

As any LGBT who follows American politics knows, with the Democrats running things in Congress and Obama in the White House it's supposedly a new day in America for LGBT people and rights. At the same time, however, we also know that a lot of the Democrats in Washington are the very same people who've been there for years, even decades. When you're talking about politics, though, you know that in the end it's not as much about which individuals happen to be in which seats in Congress as it is about how they are likely to behave, and especially vote, in a given political situation. Such is the case, I believe, with Congressman Barney Frank.

I've never met or interviewed Barney Frank. In fact, the closest I've ever come is when we literally nearly ran into each other at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in Brooklyn a few years ago. For all of the public complaining and attacking Frank's politics I'd been doing at the time, when I suddenly and unexpectedly came around a corner rushing toward a seminar and found myself face-to-face with the man I couldn't think of anything coherent to say to him until hours later. Looking back, perhaps it's just as well.

Over the years, Congressman Frank hasn't helped his own case much. His gruff manner and his willingness to take what many, including myself, saw as the easy way out, seeking to gain rights exclusively for wealthier and more politically potent gays and lesbians and his willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to achieve that goal by sacrificing those very same rights for transgender people to help entice the votes of skittish Democrats in Congress not only left me with a bad taste in my mouth just in general, but also sent the message that when push comes to shove, Frank believed that some animals are indeed more equal than others.

And then came 2007. Frank wrote and introduced the very first-ever transgender-inclusive version of ENDA that summer, but by late September and into early October of that year, trying to follow where Frank, the Human Rights Campaign, and other left-wing political players actually were on the issue of protecting transgender Americans from discrimination could give you whiplash. One minute Frank introduces the furthest-reaching federal anti-discrimination bill protecting transgender people in the history of American federal politics, the next he's on the floor of the House asking members to vote against that very same bill, telling his colleagues that transgender people who believe they should be protected against discrimination in the workplace like other Americans are living in Oz and belittling the ideal of equality for transgender Americans by making jokes about his weight. While his oratory may have seemed entertaining to some of his Congressional colleagues, to the average transgender person, probably unemployed and almost certainly facing at least some sort of discrimination as part of their daily life, Frank's wit and sense of humor probably did not play well at all.

It's not at all surprising that over time transpeople have come to see Barney Frank as every bit as much a villain in the ENDA saga as the Human Rights Campaign which quickly and enthusiastically supported his every move, right up to and including his stripping of transgender protections from the bill. For over a year afterward, transgender people and our allies have worked doggedly to promote inclusion in ENDA, lobbying Congress, making our views known in the media, protesting the Human RIghts Campaign at their dinners and other events. Finally last summer, in the heat of the Presidential campaign, Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama was repeatedly expressing his support for the inclusion of protections for gender identity and expression in ENDA. The tide began to turn yet again, and Barney Frank was among the very first seeking to capitalize on it.

At the Congressional hearing on transgender rights and equality he was instrumental in organizing, Frank was just about everything we could have hoped for. He was sharp, he was funny, he was devastatingly on-point, every bit the committed advocate we've always needed him to be. The rest of the Democrats in attendance were equally supportive, particularly Committee Chairman Rob Andrews, who deftly eviscerated Alliance Defense Fund Senior Council Glen Lavy's religion-based arguments against ensuring equal rights and treatment for transgender people. Most of all, what that hearing showed everyone, laymen and polititican alike, was that the rights of transgender people have significant and increasing support in Congress.

As angry as many of us are or have been with Barney Frank in the past, it's in these last several months since the prospect of an Obama and Democratic Party landslide became the popular expectation rather than simply a hope, that Barney Frank apparently decided that the time was right to begin in earnest the process of formally introducing transpeople to Congress as a valid minority constituency as well as one in need of legal protection from discrimination. He arranged the hearing, he spoke at the hearing, he's made positive statements in the media, he co-founded the LGBT Congressional Caucus, he's put a transgender person in a high-profile position on his staff. He's done pretty much everything you'd hope someone in his position would do to make sure that when anti-discrimination legislation is debated on and (hopefully) passed in this Congress it will be transgender-inclusive.

Anyone who reviews the history with a objective, critical eye comes to understand something about Barney Frank. We may not always like what he does. We may see him as someone who tweaks his public positions on certain issues to suit the politics of the moment a little too often for our tastes. But Barney Frank has proven remarkably consistent in at least one thing: He goes for as much as he thinks he can get.

If Barney Frank honestly didn't think transgender inclusion was viable, I doubt he'd be lobbying for it now. With yet another set of Lobby Days approaching, Congress will hear from transpeople again at just the right time, just before it's time to start voting on our rights again. When you step out and take a look at the bigger picture, the way all of these events have unfolded so neatly in concert with Democratic political successes, you wonder if perhaps this wasn't Frank's ultimate plan all along.

Considering that no one really expected any significant progress on LGBT rights to be made as long as Bush and his veto pen remained in office, it makes sense to believe that the strategy to get hate crimes and ENDA passed centered around getting them actually passed into law this year, in this Congress, with this President.

Barney Frank is a consummate politician. It's important to remember that this is not a bad thing. It means he knows how to get things done in Congress. It doesn't mean he was right to dump transpeople out of ENDA in '07, but it may mean that doing so was part of a strategy on his part which may well lead to our inclusion when these bills finally do become law.

I know, I know, after everything we've seen it's hard to consider giving Barney Frank the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it involves tacit approval of the '07 ENDA strategy. Yet, maybe it's the right thing to do. And before anyone gets on their high horse, let's also remember this: It was the anger of the trans community and the response to the stripping of the bill which got the trans community out and active at a level we've never seen before. Think about it: If you wanted to inspire more transpeople to be out, proud and politically active, how would you go about it? How about if you were a member of Congress who wanted to ask your colleagues to support transgender rights but didn't want to have to ask them to risk anything else in order to do so?

And then of course there's that other question: If this truly was Frank's plan, was HRC and their support for the non-inclusive bill part of that plan?

Yeah I know. It's enough to make your head explode. I have no way of knowing if I'm completely right, but I do believe I can't be completely wrong either. By the time the 2009 Christmas recess rolls around, I expect we'll all know the answer.


caprice said...

I doubt there was any long-term plans by Barney Frank or HRC about trans inclusion. Politics is very much about the here and now. Politicians and lobbyists don't worry about the future because they know that everything could change at the next election. They work to achieve what they can in the current session, period.

Unknown said...

Personally, I'm not so sure. I think there's a lot of planning for the future with certain kinds of legislation. Don't forget that Congress hasn't yet passed any version of ENDA despite thirty years of trying, and ten years trying with the hate crimes bill.

I believe there's been plenty of long-term planning on these bills because it's only in the last few months that we've been able to realistically consider winning (some of) our rights at the federal level to be short-term goals.

Gina said...

Any attempt to rehabilitate Frank is going to fall on my deaf ears. He's been a condescending S.O.B. to trans people for years, not just with the most recent ENDA debacle. I get tired of people describing underhanded weasels as the 'consummate politician'. Tammy Baldwin is a good example how a governmental representative can be pragmatic, forward thinking and honest while still treating people with respect. Barney will never learn that lesson and it's coming back to bite both he and Pelosi in their rotten behinds.

Tamara Jeanne said...

One thing that can said for certain, irregardless of whether or not there was some deep strategy involved here, is that after we got "thrown under the bus" in 07 is that it did really trigger a major increase in the level of trans-activism and support from LGBT organizations and our alies for restoring trans-inclusion in ENDA.

Gina said...

Tamara, I hope you're not somehow giving Congressman Frank credit for that?

Unknown said...

There's something to be said for increasing interest and participation in activism by pissing people off. We've seen it work quite effectively with Prop 8.

History shows that most of the progress in civil rights has been made in response to those being discriminated against rising up and publicly demanding equality. There's no reason to expect that the same won't be true in our case as well.