"Gender Rights are Human Rights" was the theme of the 1st National Conference on Gender and the 6th National Gender Lobby Day organized by GenderPAC, May 18-21 in Washington, D.C. Executive director Riki Wilchins said that more than 400 people attended the conference and 150 stayed to lobby Congress on Monday.
She stressed the importance of having grassroots constituents educating their elected officials on the importance of gender equality. That means "the right to safe streets in communities, the right to safe schools where our kids are harassed, the right to have a fair and equal workplace environment."
"People should not be fired, harassed, or denied employment because of their gender. Whether that is a woman who is considered too feminine for advancement, a lesbian who is considered too masculine, a gay man who might be camping it up a little bit, or a transgender person who is transitioning on the job. We believe that people should have full equality in the workplace, regardless of their gender. It's a simple concept and it is time that mainstream America got used to it."
GenderPAC filed its first three "impact litigation cases" last year, said Wilchins. But it is also looking for ways "to cast or enhance existing legislation in ways that also expand gender rights."
They are asking members of Congress "to support our congressional EEO project, to sign a diversity clause saying that they don't discriminate based on gender in their own office hiring." Last year was the first time they sought this commitment and they gained 94 signatories. The goal this year is 150.
Six years ago we had our first lobby day, said Wilchins. "The Congressmen had no idea what we were talking about, they didn't know what we were doing there." But by last year, ten Republicans were among those who signed the diversity pledge. "That's really amazing movement," she said.
One of the highlights of the conference was an animated lecture by Chai Feldblum, who reviewed the changing nature of gender law. She is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and played a leading role in drafting both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ( ENDA ) .
"I'm a pragmatist with a passion," Feldblum said, "I want to make change." Part of the way of effecting change is to understand how the status quo came to be created. The convoluted path of gender law is based in the 1964 Civil Rights Act when a conservative congressman pressed an amendment to include coverage of sex only in Title VII, hoping to sabotage the entire Act. The anomaly stuck and the bill passed.
Case law has been built around the court's interpretation of GENDER from cover
Congress's intent in enacting this clause. Attempts to modify civil-rights legislation have been restricted by the unwillingness of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights ( LCCR ) an alliance of organized labor, racial and ethnic organizations, and religious groupsto be fully supportive of equality for gays and lesbians.
One of the results of this is the strategy of trying to enact ENDA, an employment only bill, rather than an omnibus civil-right bill for the GLBT community. The transgender community was not explicitly included because LCCR and congressional allies were not willing to take that step.
Feldblum explained how her own views have changed. "The idea that there is this complete distinction between sexual orientation and gender, which is what I believed in 1994, I now think is simply, completely wrong."
She tied her change in thinking directly to meetings with Wilchins and other transgender activists that began about six years ago. "They made me think about it in depth for the first time."
"Gender affects all of our ways of interacting, both legally as well as socially," said Feldblum. "Society thinks that lesbians are masculine, therefore they are ready to say that a masculine looking woman, who is discriminated against because she is masculine, is being discriminated against because she is a lesbian. But my femininity is also an aspect of my sexual orientation."
"You look at the women who spend all of this time on the lipstick and makeup. They are doing it partly because they think it helps them get guys. That is what they think is attractive to men. Their gender presentation also relates to their heterosexual orientation. I'm no different. It's just that, I'm not looking at the men."
"And that is why gender presentation also is an aspect of my sexual orientation. So they are connected, no matter how gender non-conforming you might think you are." Feldblum urged gay and women's groups to bring cases for gay and transgender rights under gender law. "It is about individual people making change in the law and in society."
Wilchins' closing comment on Feldblum fully captured the mood of the audience: "Chai may be a femme, but she's a legal top as far as I'm concerned."