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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


New Perspectives and Push on Trans Rights

Human Rights Campaign releases major poll and signals strengthened commitment

A major study of attitudes toward the transgendered community commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) shows that while a majority of Americans support the rights of gender variant people to live free of discrimination and violence, knowledge of their lives remains vague and often misinformed.

Results of the study, which included both traditional polling and more intensive focus groups, were presented on September 22 at the annual Southern Comfort conference of transgender activists in Atlanta.

As HRC made public the survey results, it also confirmed that it is committed to strengthening its commitment to make transgender rights initiatives part of its core organizational goals.

"We've come to the conclusion that [transgender rights] needs to be pursued legislatively as well [as through legal efforts]," David Smith, communications director at HRC told Gay City News. "We would very much like to pursue that legislatively on the federal level in 2003."

HRC's thinking has evolved considerably in recent years, as the group incorporated transgender rights into its mission statement and worked with activists to pursue transgender victories both in the court room and at the local and state level. However, up until now, HRC resisted efforts to amend the centerpiece of its federal legislative agenda, Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) pending before Congress to add transgender protections to those afforded gay men and lesbians.

Out gay Congressmember Barney Frank (D., Mass.), the key ENDA sponsor on Capitol Hill, angered many trans activists by comments about adding transgender protections that they considered dismissive and even hostile.

Smith said that without knowing the make-up of Congress in January, it was impossible to say how the new initiative would impact ENDA strategy. While the measure once passed the U.S. Senate during the Clinton administration, it has to date been considered a dead letter in the Republican-controlled House.

"Legislative strategy is constantly being reevaluated," Smith said. "The legislative strategy on ENDA is completely up in the air. What will be introduced and prioritized in January has not been decided."

Smith added that despite the commitment to add transgender issues to the federal agenda, efforts are at a very early stage.

"We'll be working with other advocacy groups including Lambda [Legal Defense and Education Fund], the [Boston-based] Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the ACLU, and other allies including our transgender allies as well," he said. "These are issues we've been working on for several years and that have intensified in the last year."

Smith emphasized that HRC will look to the transgender community to organize itself politically for future collaborations.

Expressing pleasant surprise at the strength of positive attitudes toward transgendered individuals generally, Smith also cautioned that findings pointed to the need for significant public education efforts.

More than 60 percent of respondents agreed that the law should protect transgendered people from discrimination, but nearly as many incorrectly believed that such civil rights measures already exist. Two thirds who answered the poll said it was "possible for a person to be born as one sex, but inside feel like another sex." About half felt it was "all right" to be transgendered, while 37 percent thought it was wrong. Three quarters said transgendered youth should be in the public schools. Half were comfortable working with transgendered colleagues, with less than one in ten opposed to doing so.

On all of these measures, transgender-friendly attitudes were nearly as strong as those involving gay men and lesbians. People are far less familiar, however, with the lives of transgendered people relative to those of gays and lesbians. Half of all respondents said they know a gay or lesbian person; only 16 percent said they know a transgendered person.

And, when the specifics of transgender lives were spelled out to respondents?? that many individuals choose to live as the opposite gender from their birth, and take steps to change their appearance ranging from their dress to surgical intervention??support declined, though by only a few points.

"Translating popular attitudes into political gains is about more than adding a few words to legislation," Smith said.

He pointed to the debacle over gays in the military early in the Clinton administration as an example of what can happen when political support is not carefully cultivated in seeking legislative and policy changes.

"In 1992, 61 or 62 percent of the public supported lifting the ban," Smith said. "Exiting that battle, after the change was opposed by high profile figures including Colin Powell, public support was down to 43 percent."

Transgender advocates applauded the shift in HRC policy and echoed the need for sustained public education.

"I am obviously thankful about the shift in priorities at HRC," said

Mara Keisling, co-chair of the Pennsylvania Gender Rights Coalition. "The results of their study are a road map for how to move forward. It's very clear that there is major education to do, and this shows us how to do that education."

Keisling, who has been a public opinion and polling specialist for the past 25 years and advised HRC on its research effort, said that education must emphasize two principle themes: "one, that we exist and, two, that we are not protected and face discrimination and victimization."

Activists in New York were similarly hopeful about the HRC news.

"The poll confirmed what we suspected all along, that the gap between resistance to transgender rights versus gay rights is quite small," said Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYGRA). "We view the HRC statement as a signal development in the evolution of their thinking about transgender people."

Commenting on both the HRC statement and a similar position confirmed this week by the Empire State Pride Agenda, Donna Cartwright, a NYAGRA founder, said, "If it goes as it seems to be headed, we've arrived at a sea change that is monumental."

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