Friday, January 30, 2009
The ultimate lobbying tool.
I attended a great workshop this morning at Creating Change about the on-going work to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in Congress this year. Presenters were Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and Becky Dansky of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force with help from organizers from PFLAG and the NGLTF Transgender Civil Rights Project. (Sorry, I didn’t catch their names.)
ENDA is the current version of a decades long effort to write protection from discrimination against LGBT people into federal law. The early rounds began in 1974(!) -- this is taking a long time. Since the 1990s, the effort has focused solely on employment. Not surprisingly, the effort was completely stalled during the period of Republican/Bush rule.
But now we once again have a chance to win -- and this year's version of the law is fully inclusive, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity (that means it covers transpeople and all variants of gender non-conformity) as well as sexual orientation. If we can get it through Congress, President Obama has said he'll sign it. In the workshop, we were told it would go to the House of Representatives in the spring. Once it passes there, if it does, it will go to the Senate in the fall.
Kiesling and Dansky were clearly experienced professionals. Though a less inclusive bill cleared the House last year, they insisted: "we can't get lazy." And thanks to grassroots demands, DC advocates are working for more and better this time around. Many Congresspeople still don't really believe gays need protection from discrimination in the workplace -- and they don't have much clue about how people who appear to others to violate gender norms are treated. People who care about these issues need to talk with their representatives.
Yet interestingly, Kiesling takes a very relaxed view of the interplay between an aroused grassroots and legislative lobbyists. I've never heard such comfort with a somewhat anarchic constituency from a professional who works the Hill. Though she's had long years in the business of crafting messages, she thinks the era of strict "message discipline" is over. Etools have so lowered the costs of mobilizing opinion that people who know what they want will simply do it without institutional prompting. She thinks of the Obama campaign as the model for showing that it is possible to surf waves of popular expression, rather than try to dam them up. She is very confident that the groundswell for a fully inclusive ENDA in this moment when "change" is the word in Washington can win this long slog.
That is, she wasn't entirely just being charming when she said that thanks to e-communications and communities, "you don't need us, the lobbyists."
I like the idea, but the workshop also showed that we do still need some prompting. About 75 percent of the 25 or so activists present could not name their Congresspersons. Until folks get engaged, we still need basic information pushed out to us from those who are paid to collect and synthesize it. Maybe then we can run with it, but there's still a vital role in having people at the center who know what is going on -- and which Congresscritters to target.
Still it was an interesting moment, to hear a political professional admit that messages cannot be centrally controlled in contemporary political struggles. Maybe we are seeing "change we can believe in."