By Allison Stevens
Washington Bureau Chief
Friday, January 16, 2009
Rep. Lois Capps is working to secure equal rights for lesbians by championing bills to add protections from violence and ban discrimination.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--The November passage of California's Proposition 8, which stripped lesbians and gays of the right to marry bestowed by an earlier state Supreme Court ruling, came as a bitter defeat for supporters of same-sex marriage rights.
"It was a blow, frankly, it was a huge blow," said Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat and staunch advocate of rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. But she also describes it as a sounding call to the communities who are being discriminated against and to everyone who supports their civil rights.
As a founding member last June of the LGBT Equality Caucus--a group of 77 lawmakers, including one Republican, focused on equal marriage and other rights--Capps sees opportunities in the next congressional session. Experience from past battles will help in the coming years, she said.
Capps supports marriage rights for same-sex couples and is a vocal opponent of social conservatives' attempt to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
A high priority is a bill banning employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. Current law bans discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.
A similar bill that banned discrimination against lesbians and gays but did not mention transgender individuals passed the House in 2007 but never made it to the Senate because of a veto threat from President Bush.
Now Capps hopes that educational efforts stressing equal rights for bisexual and transgender people aimed at House members can persuade them to incorporate gender identity into the bill, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
"When we came to transgender and bisexual issues there was a lack of understanding about it and confusion by our colleagues," she said. "And if that is the case in our Congress, and we're made up of ordinary American citizens, then we realized we need to do some more education."
Capps spoke about this and other issues in August at a panel discussion hosted by Women's eNews at the Democratic Convention in Denver and revisited the topic in a recent interview.
The LGBT Caucus was founded in June 2008 by Congress' only open lesbian, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, and its only openly gay man, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. (A third openly gay member of Congress, Jared Polis of Colorado, was elected in November.) Capps is one of 14 vice chairs of the LGBT Caucus. She is also the outgoing chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, a bipartisan group of female lawmakers.
Another high priority for the LGBT Equality Caucus is legislation to expand current hate-crimes law to include violence motivated by bias because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The "hate-crimes" legislation passed the House as a stand-alone bill last year and was included as an amendment to the defense budget bill in the Senate. But under threat from a presidential veto, lawmakers stripped the hate-crimes amendment out of the defense budget bill during House-Senate negotiations.
Capps also has an eye on legislation that would provide schools with federal funds to combat bullying and gang activity. "We need to reach out before acts of violence occur," she said. "And a lot of that happens in the community and in families."
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The incoming administration of Barack Obama is expected to be far friendlier to LGBT rights, but Obama sparked outcry among many advocates by asking Pastor Rick Warren, a socially conservative evangelical minister who backed Proposition 8, to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in inaugural ceremony next week. Warren's appearance also drew fierce criticism from many women's rights groups critical of the minister's stance against abortion rights.
Warren has said his position against same-sex marriage is "not negotiable" and that lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people are "unnatural," notes the Washington-based National Organization for Women in an online letter protesting the pick.
Obama sent a conciliatory signal, however, by asking the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an Episcopalian and the first openly gay bishop in a major Christian denomination, to deliver the invocation at an inaugural concert on Jan. 18 at the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama opposes same-sex marriage but supports civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, and wants to expand hate-crimes law and employment protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, according to his transition Web site. He also supports the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans lesbians and gays from serving openly in the military, according to his site.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.