Bill Banning Prejudice Against Gays at Work Stalls

Democrats want to pass a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace. But the legislation is bogged down in the House, where party members are split over whether to include protection for transgender people. Gay rights activists are calling for an all-inclusive bill or none.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace is stalled in the House. The holdup is over extending the bill's protections to transgender people. One of the bill's sponsors is openly gay Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts, and it was he who removed that provision to help pass the landmark legislation.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): It became clear to me that the votes are probably there for sexual orientation; that's not an easy one, but they're probably there. But they are currently not there for the transgender piece.

MONTAGNE: Now, gay rights activists say they'd rather have no bill than one that's not all-inclusive.

NPR's Debbie Elliot reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOT: Last year when the Democrats rode to victory, gay rights groups knew they'd have their best chance yet of getting a workplace discrimination bill through Congress. Now those prospects are looking rather dim.

Mr. MATT FOREMAN (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force): You know, this was kind of like having the rug pulled out from underneath us.

ELLIOT: Matt Foreman is executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Mr. FOREMAN: The fact that that it has stalled out of course is extremely disappointing to us. We do understand the political realities. At the same time it's, you know, very discouraging that we're not able to really count on the Democratic majority to stand together and fight for the gay community, which is an incredibly loyal base of the party, both financially and in the way in which we vote.

ELLIOT: The bill was scheduled for a vote on the House floor last week but was pulled so Democratic leaders could iron out differences in their caucus over just who the bill should cover.

Sponsor Barney Frank says it's not the right time to include transgender protections.

Rep. FRANK: We are just not far enough along on the transgender issue.

ELLIOT: Frank likens the problem to the climate in 1972 when he first introduced gay rights legislation in Massachusetts.

Rep. FRANK: I encountered a lot of - oh, gee - uneasiness, real unhappiness, because it was new to people and the notion of the same sexual relationships, it troubled people. Well, we've done lot in the past 30-plus years to educate people of that. It's only been in the past couple years that we've also begun to educate people about what it like to be transgender.

ELLIOT: But the only openly lesbian member of Congress, and the bill's other sponsor, disagrees.

Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has introduced an amendment to add gender identity back into the Workplace Discrimination Bill. She's not talking this week, but in an interview with NPR last week, she spoke of the need for a fully inclusive bill.

Representative TAMMY BALDWIN (Democrat, Wisconsin): I think there's been a commitment that we are going to strive together to win full equal rights, not special rights, but equal rights.

ELLIOT: Democratic leaders are working now to get Baldwin not to press for a vote on her amendment, which they say would kill the whole bill. Gay rights advocates say that's fine with them because in many ways the House vote is a symbolic one.

There's not enough support to get the employment Non-Discrimination Act through the Senate, and the White House has threatened a veto despite exclusions for religious institutions and the military.

Even so, Congressman Barney Frank says it's important for the House to pass the landmark gay rights legislation.

Rep. FRANK: You know, if you had told me in 1972, today in some states if you say to a 15-year-old, you know what, the United States House of Representatives is going to say that you're okay, that it's wrong to treat you badly, that you should be treated the same as everybody else; even if we don't get that signed in the law, that's a powerful statement.

ELLIOT: Yesterday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Democrats hope to move the bill before the Thanksgiving break.

Debbie Elliot, NPR News, the Capitol.

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