Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Civil Rights, Legislative Wrongs

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Civil Rights, Legislative Wrongs

Article excerpt

For gay rights activists, the important difference in the presidential race is between two strongly supportive Democrats on one side and the uniformly hostile Republicans--including John McCain--on the other. But while the Al Gore-Bill Bradley split over whether to support a separate antibias bill (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) or to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act has no electoral relevance, it is crucial legislatively. The wrong choice will make the hard job of passing any bill even harder.

Illogically, some argue that because those of us most active in this fight once backed amending the Civil Rights Act, our support for ENDA is questionable. The opposite is true. We changed our strategy and drafted ENDA precisely because it became clear to us that a stand-alone measure would be much easier to pass while providing identical legal protection against job discrimination for gay and lesbian people.

The reason was--and is--affirmative action, which derives its major legislative sanction from the Civil Rights Act. When a gay rights bill was first proposed in Congress in the 1970s, this was no problem. But by the mid '80s, conservatives were making political gains by demonizing affirmative action as the source of "reverse discrimination" against white males. The success of this tactic spilled over into the fight against sexual orientation bias.

As it became clear that most Americans oppose firing people because they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, our opponents decided that dishonesty was the best politics. Implicitly conceding that job discrimination is wrong, they argued that gay people were already protected against such bias, so we must be seeking affirmative action--i.e., "special rights." Both parts of this argument are false, but as the outcome of several antigay ballot measures has demonstrated, propaganda does not have to be accurate to be effective.

Our first response to this in 1989 was to add language to our proposed modification of the Civil Rights Act severely limiting affirmative action on the basis of sexual orientation. But this gave our opponents cover to continue to argue that we wanted special rights: Why else, they asked, did we seek coverage under the very law establishing affirmative action? …

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