Autobiography: Congress, Part 1

Here’s another post in my ongoing autobiography project. If you like reading these posts, please consider helping me out financially; I’m crowdfunding this project via my Patreon account. You can read more about my ambitions here.

Today, September 23, is an important anniversary for me. It’s the day I became the first openly transgender person to testify before a Congressional committee. Here’s the first part of the story.

In mid-September 2009 I got a call from my attorney, Cole Thaler. He had a proposition for me. The Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was preparing to convene a hearing where it would receive testimony about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would extend federal employment protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans. Several versions of the bill had languished in Congress for over fifteen years; now, with a friendly President, friendly veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, and support by wide majorities in issue polls, equality-minded progressives had decided it was time to finally pass it.

This hearing would be the first step. Testimony would be given by the usual policy wonks and attorneys, but they also wanted a witness whose life had been adversely affected by the lack of ENDA. A call was put out nationwide by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF, but they’re now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force) to find such a witness, and the powers that be at Lambda Legal had asked Cole to ask me if I was interested.

During the course of my lawsuit, Cole (and my other attorneys, Greg Nevins and Dru Levasseur) asked me to make appearances at several public events, and whether or not I accepted was governed by these two questions, in order:

1. Will it be good for the LGBT community?

2. Will it be good for our case?

If the answer to #1 was “yes,” I always accepted. (If the answer to #2 was “no,” they usually didn’t bring the idea to me in the first place, but I tried to do everything I could that was good forNCTE-logo the community, even if it might be bad for the lawsuit.)

This time I said “yes,” of course. This one was a no-brainer. The passage of ENDA would make what Sewell Brumby had done to me illegal, nationwide. If my testimony could help make that happen, there’s no way I could say no.

There were three other people under consideration for the role. I don’t remember the details, but I believe they were all also transgender, and their stories were also compelling. I think the committee wanted a transgender person, because we stood even closer to the front lines of this fight than lesbians and gays.

At that time, our lawsuit had been filed about 14 months previously, and over the summer our district court judge had turned down the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss with a lengthy, point-by-point refutation of their justification for firing me. He hinted broadly that, if everything we’d alleged was true (and it was), he would eventually rule in our favor.

Counterintuitively, we suspected this would make the committee less likely to choose me as a witness: if I was on track to win my lawsuit, it sort of suggested I didn’t need ENDA, right? Certainly hundreds of LGBT people are fired from jobs every year, and most of their circumstances didn’t give them the option to sue that Lambda Legal and I had pounced upon. It seemed likely that one of these other three candidates had more woeful tales of woe.

I’ll probably never know, since I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process. But in the end, they did choose me. I had to keep it a secret until the day before, but I wasn’t telling anyone then, because I spent that day traveling.

Cole and I flew up to Washington together early on TuesdayTF_logo_pos_arrow morning, the 22nd. My best friend, David Deriso, came along on his own dime. Mara Keisling of NCTE met us at the airport and drove us into the district, where we were installed in a hotel near the Congressional office building where the hearings would be held. Then walked a few blocks to the headquarters of the NGLTF.

Cole had written my testimony, which was strictly limited to five minutes. We spent all afternoon at a conference table. Some of the biggest names in LGBT political activism told me what to expect from the hearing, how I should respond to questions, and how best to comport myself. I may or may not have walked the length of the room balancing a book on my head.

I memorized my testimony, although I’d also have notecards the next day. I rehearsed it over and over as Mara timed me with her iPhone’s stopwatch app. By the time we were done, I was hitting within a few seconds under the five-minute mark.

Finally, I was as ready as I was going to be, and we knocked off to go relax a little. We found ourselves at a nearby restaurant/bar in what I was told was one of D.C.’s many gay neighborhoods.

While there, I saw a face out of the past. At a booth near the front door was my old shipmate, Trey, dining with another man. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in years. I wanted to go say hello to him, and to this day I regret that I didn’t, but at the time my thinking was that there would be more explaining to do than I had the excess emotional energy for. I did Google him later that night, and learned that after he’d also left the Navy, he joined an association for gay Annapolis grads. And the wheel keeps turning.

I didn’t sleep well that night, but I was so adrenalized and nervous the next morning that it didn’t matter. We took a taxi to Congress and went into an antechamber to the hearing room. It was here that I met Tico Almeida, who at the time worked for George Miller, a California Congressman and the chairman of the committee. It was Tico’s idea to bring a victim of discrimination to speak at this hearing. He later founded Freedom to Work.

This was the panel of witnesses (h/t bilerico and my friend Jillian Weiss). You can see a couple of anti-equality conservative names there, added by the Republican vice chairman. I don’t know why he insisted, since not a single Republican committee member showed up for the hearing.

Each of us gave our testimony, then took questions. I went first:

Tomorrow: Part 2.


Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.

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