Thursday afternoon, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act passed the Senate by a 64-32 vote, drawing unanimous Democratic support plus votes from 10 Republican backers. The bill, while far from perfect, would go a long way toward protecting gay, lesbian, and trans people against discriminatory workplace practices—which is why a coalition of conservatives and libertarians have begun attacking it. As ENDA skates toward an uncertain future in the House, here are its opponents’ arguments (plus my own rejoinders), ranked from most idiotic to most innovative.
1) Gay people are weird, and trans people are gross.
That, in essence, is the starting and ending point of a National Review op-ed by Ryan T. Anderson, co-author of perhaps the most infamously bizarre defense of “traditional” marriage ever penned. In his op-ed, Anderson doesn’t feign principled objections to certain provisions of ENDA; he simply states that gay and trans people deserve no workplace protections whatsoever. Why? “Traditional values,” of course. To Anderson, preventing employees from firing gay employees for being gay “would further weaken the marriage culture and the ability of civil society to affirm that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.” ENDA, he believes, “would treat these convictions as if they were bigotry.”
Anderson never explains this link between personally opposing same-sex marriage and being legally forbidden from imposing anti-gay workplace discrimination. It’s easy to read between the lines, though. ENDA is premised on the notion that there’s nothing wrong with being gay or trans, and thus it should not be a fire-able offense. But for Anderson, homosexuality is unnatural and wrong (for a uniquely odd reason), and thus employers should not be forced to tolerate such aberrant individuals. Combine that backward thinking with some paranoid transphobic rambling—trans teachers indoctrinating children! trans women doing weird things in bathrooms!—and you’ve got yourself the most ridiculously stupid attack on ENDA out there.
2) ENDA is unnecessary and unpopular.
Disgraced former lobbyist and failed politician Ralph Reed recently hopped on the anti-ENDA train via a tart op-ed in USA Today. Predictably, Reed parrots the Christian right’s talking points on the bill, which he labels “a dagger aimed at the heart of religious freedom for millions of Americans.” Reed also complains that “sexual orientation and gender identity [are] an often fluid standard that can be known only by violating an employee’s right to privacy.” (Who knew Reed was so concerned about gay people’s privacy?) Then Reid brings it in for the kill: “The number of discrimination actions in states that prohibit hiring decisions based on sexual preference is miniscule [sic],” he says, “suggesting it doesn't require federal policing.”
There are some legitimate debates to be had about ENDA. But the shocking prevalence of the kind of discrimination it is designed to outlaw simply isn’t one of them. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law, between 15 and 43 percent of LGB people have experienced workplace discrimination or harassment, and between 8 and 17 percent have been fired or not hired due to their sexual orientation. Just as startlingly, up to 41 percent of LGB employees have experienced anti-gay harassment or abuse in the workplace. That number soars up to 90 percent for trans people. Meanwhile, gay people can still be fired for their sexuality in 29 states. (For trans people, it’s 34.) If Reed has truly “worked with and hired gay employees,” as he claims, perhaps he should ask them about their prior job experience before shrugging off anti-gay workplace discrimination as virtually nonexistent.
3) ENDA will make gay people boring.
Rather than slogging through the old anti-gay canards tossed around by Anderson and Reid, the Daily Caller’s Patrick Howley took a novel tack in a Wednesday article, claiming that gay people were way more fun when they could be openly discriminated against. To locate this objection in Howley’s piece, however, one must first wade through several hundred words of part-bragging, part-insecure rambling about the author’s own flirtations with homosexuality:
Now, let me be clear. I love the gays. I have gay friends, gay mentors, gay acquaintances and associates. In fact, many people even assume that I am gay. Particularly women I’ve slept with. Also old men. A lot of old men. I mean, seriously, if balding, beady-eyed middle-aged men in sweaters were hot chicks, I’d be Ashton Kutcher. I’m practically on the cover of their magazines. I can’t even walk around DuPont Circle on early autumn evenings or interact with male bank tellers without getting eyed down like a side of ribs. It’s not even flattering. I know why it happens. I only get it because I’m skinny and I look like I’d be a bottom. It’s demeaning, really.
“Demeaning” is, indeed, the appropriate word here, but not quite in the sense that Howley uses it.
Anyway, Howley’s broader point is, apparently, that ENDA will represent the final stake in the coffin of gay subversiveness. He describes the bill as “another anti-business piece of legislation that allows self-identified cultural victims to sue their employers after they get fired,” then notes:
At least creepy old gay dudes cowering in the corners of Metro stations are still keeping things interesting. Their weird, trembling, ballpoint ink stains-on-their-buttoned-down-shirts brand of gayness is in line with the hallmarks and the tenets of the gayness that I know and love.
It is true, I suppose, that gay culture was, on the whole, more flamboyant and daring back when gay people were living on the fringes of society. But this daringness came at the expense of living on the fringes of society. The thrust of Howley’s argument—that gay people were way more fun when they were marginalized, and ENDA will ruin that fun once and for all—is condescending and vaguely insulting. He co-opts the language of radical gay activists in order to support an anti-gay conservative agenda, all while simultaneously flaunting his gay cultural credentials. (Mommie Dearest? Tales of the City? Maybe he is a bottom!) It’s a strange piece of performance art, and not a particularly successful one: Gay people, once bestowed with basic rights, can still be just as flamboyant or nontraditional as they want. But they must receive those rights first. Being colorful and daring is a choice; being gay is not. It makes no sense to argue that gay people can only preserve their culture by also preserving the pernicious discrimination that has kept them marginalized for most of modern history.
As the ENDA debate continues, plenty more dumb arguments will bubble to the surface as anti-gay activists fight to preserve their perceived right to discriminate. I’ll be surprised, though, if any are silly enough to trump these three. ENDA is a worthy bill with noble goals and few real drawbacks. And in the not-too-distant future, it will be sewn into America’s web of nondiscrimination laws. When that day comes, we’ll look back at Anderson, Reid, and Howley and wonder not what they were thinking, but whether they were even thinking at all.