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HRC: Birch on Trans Issues
by Tracy Baim

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This week we continue our interview with Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the national Human Rights Campaign.

At Birch´s side for the interview was Chicagoan Jeffrey Sachse, co-chair of HRC´s national board of directors, and an attorney with Krasnow Sanberg Cornblath & Hobbs.

Outlines: Is there a conflict on the HRC board with individuals who work for candidates? Certainly in Chicago, the political organizations such as IMPACT had problems because they had people on their boards who worked for candidates.

Sachse: We don´t have anybody on our board that works for a candidate.

Birch: If it did come up, I imagine what we´d do, is they would take a leave of absence.

Outlines: On the transgendered issues ... . Locally, there seems to be a very strong transgendered community. They have picketed at the local HRC dinner.

Sachse: There are people in the transgendered community, including one person on our board of governors, that have always come to the dinner ...

Outlines: But as a group ... they attended one year, but they have also picketed. ... The issue with ENDA [ Employment Non-Discrimination Act ] , is part of a larger issue in terms of the transgendered and bisexual community being a part of the mission and objectives of HRC. Is it part of the national mission statement that those issues are included?

Birch: No, it´s not in the mission, and the mission of the HRC covers gay, lesbian and bisexual, and in addition the board has passed a resolution in support of a number of issues, and in general, gender identity. Those issues are important, and the community, as complex as it is and as varied as it is, because I think there´s enormous complexity ... . I think that sometimes even the press has very simplistic approaches to this issue ... but that there is [ an HRC ] commitment to partner with various transgendered organizations, and we have. I think we have delivered widely on our deeds in ways that I think has not been adequately captured.

Outlines: What are those things?

Birch: Every single [ transgendered ] lobby day that has been run, has been in partnership with HRC, with training being conducted out of HRC, using HRC´s staff. HRC staff has accompanied the transgender leadership on the Hill to go and educate on a variety of issues. HRC was instrumental in making sure gender identity was in the hate-crimes bill. And I testified to that effect on Capitol Hill. We have been in any number of strategy meetings with transgendered leadership and have proffered a number of avenues toward possible ways to achieve protection in employment, in public accommodation and in housing. We have developed our Worknet program and made it more expansive so that it includes transgendered issues and the workplace.

Outlines: Do you think if it´s not included [ in ENDA ] now, that those rights would ever be achieved ... would that ever be able to stand on its own [ the approach of let us pass this now, and include gender-variance later ] ?

Birch: Of course I do. It came within one vote ...

Outlines: I mean if trans issues were included ... is it viewed as something that would hold the legislation back?

Birch: It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with what the co-sponsors of the bill want. And contrary to popular belief, the bill is actually owned and run by members of Congress, not by the HRC.

Outlines: The concept of trans issues ... are they in partnership just like with Black issues might be, or are they integral to the agency? ENDA is just one example of how that manifests itself.

Birch: I think that the Human Rights Campaign has done as much if not more on transgender issues than most other national [ gay and lesbian ] organizations. If you really look at the actual work. I hope we can get beyond lip service ... which is what I think some of the other organizations tend to broker in. We have put a lot of muscle and time and effort to both educate on Capitol Hill, as well formulate realistic, tangible courses of action that might deliver some results down the road.

Outlines: If you´re working with the national trans leaders, why do you think the anger is coming out?

Birch: I think that this is a very vibrant and excited movement. I think they are coming into power in a way that we´ve never seen before. I think they´re being very effective, and I think that although lots of transgendered people were at Stonewall, it´s only in recent years that it´s sort of surfaced into sort of national education. ... I think it´s a natural thing for people to be single-minded about what they want, and I think they have a misapprehension about HRC´s being the gatekeepers. I also think that gender identity is complex, and there needs to be tremendous education on Capitol Hill. Just as it took years and years to educate people about gay, lesbian and bisexual issues, this is a brand new topic for many, many members of Congress. Even our very liberal left friends know little about this topic. I think that it´s wholly unfair to almost overnight ... for them this feels very new, they want to know more about it. It´s a very complex issue, and it needs to be teased apart and simplified. We want to stand there and help do that. I also think there are other legal avenues to some of the results that want to be gained, that so far have been rejected out of hand. I think transgendered issues are rooted very deeply in gender issues in the law, and for some reason, no one has seen that as a vehicle.

Outlines: The political battles in Chicago have become so personal, it may be that we can´t overcome these divisions until the people involved are not involved anymore. Jeffrey, being from Chicago, are there still efforts happening to try and get the memberships and leadership of HRC and local political groups together? The fights seem to push people away from activism at all. They are very personal attacks.

Sachse: We´re always working for opportunities to work with state and local agencies. I think it´s important for people to know that HRC did take an active role in Equality Begins @ Home, from a national perspective in terms of providing funding, as well as having one of our board members being involved, sharing our member lists, and resources. My hope is some type of phoenix might rise from the ashes of all this, and we will have great leaders here on the state and local level whom we can work with more effortlessly. To do what needs to be done. The reality is that not all politics occur on the city level, or the county level, or the state level, or the federal level. But as Elizabeth indicated, you have to have a strategy that encompasses all of those. To the extent that you can take the personal-ness out of it, and make it more about the strategy and the result and less about the personalities involved, the better off we´re going to be.

Outlines: Has there been progress working with local groups?

Sache: We have not allocated a lot of resources to it locally. We have a lot of work to do locally, just specifically focusing on the mission of HRC. Every single person in Chicago that´s involved in HRC does it on a volunteer basis. So our volunteers have to gravitate to the things that are most efficient for them, which are most likely to produce a result. So there has not been a lot of energy focused on working together. I think everybody would like to. I think we´ve talked about it.

Birch: I think we enjoy some tremendous relationships around the country. Where we put the work in, where it´s mutually beneficial, and we´ve built bridges, and it has been a boon, like in Georgia, Minnesota. I think there are tremendous benefits to working together, and I think it can be contentious in any community, and our movement can choose to continue to be contentious and divisive, and view every issue through a one-inch lens. But I think if we get underneath, we would find tremendous common ground. We have so much to organize around instead of to be divided around. It would be wonderful to see us get on with that work. Illinois is a tremendous community for the Human Rights Campaign. We have incredible leadership here, we have a huge membership. Any statewide organization you would think would want to try and create a bridge. And we would welcome such bridge building, because there is incredible mutual benefit. Lots of state representatives go on to Congress, so better to catch them while they´re in the state House.

Next week: The final excerpts from the HRC interview, and an overview of HRC´s current mission.

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