ENDA, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Expression

We’ve already touched upon ENDA, the US anti-discrimination law that is likely to pass the congress in some form or other and certain to be vetoed by Bush.  As the issue is laid out by some such as John Aravosis, the law will either protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or do this  and also protect against discrimination against trans-people. Aravosis has been strongly criticised for asking why a single bill should include protection for both gay and trans people, since being gay and being trans are importantly different. I think it’s always a reasonable thing to ask why particular groups should or shouldn’t be grouped together, both conceptually and practically (and the practical issues are strange here, since the bill is certain to be vetoed)– though apparently Aravosis has a lot of historical facts wrong when he suggests that trans-people are latecomers to the long established and hard-working gay rights movement. And I also think that Aravosis poses the question in quite a dismissive and disrespectful way at times. But this important article by Susan Stryker suggests that Aravosis is utterly wrong to set out the legislative issues as he does. Gay people will not be properly protected unless trans-people are too, because anyone who is attracted to those of the “wrong” sex is not engaging in conventional gender expression. If you want to actually protect gay people who aren’t totally straight-acting and successfully closeted, you need to protect against discrimination on the basis of gender expression.

Protecting the rights of transgender people specifically is just one welcome byproduct of the version of ENDA that forbids discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender expression or identity. This full version of ENDA, rather than the nearly introduced one that stripped away previously agreed-upon protections against gender-based discrimination and would protect only sexual orientation, is the one that is of potential benefit to all Americans, and not just to a narrow demographic slice of straight-looking, straight-acting gays and lesbians. It doesn’t really even do that much good for this group, as Lambda Legal points out, because of a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.Now here’s the rub — but it requires another of those fancy words my academic colleagues and I like to throw around: heteronormativity, the idea that whatever straight people do is really what’s what, and that whatever anybody else does is deviant to some degree. To want to have sex with somebody of the same gender violates heteronormative expectations of gender behavior as much as it does heteronormative expectations of sexual behavior. Simply put: Real men don’t suck cock. Nor do they use the word “fabulous” when describing a pair of women’s shoes. Nor do they keep a picture of their husband pinned to the wall of their office cubicle. All of the above violates conventional or stereotypical expectations of proper masculine gender, and as Lambda Legal’s preliminary analysis of ENDA makes clear, none would be protected under the rubric of sexual orientation alone. It’s OK to be gay, in other words, just so long as you don’t act like a fag. 

Some very important arguments here.