By Columnist Susan Estrich
That’s what it was called back in 1979, when Paul Tsongas, the freshman senator from Massachusetts, introduced a bill to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add sexual orientation to the list (which already included race, religion and sex) of things you couldn’t (absent narrow exceptions) base employment decisions on.
Even my boss at the time, Senate Judiciary Chair Ted Kennedy, didn’t sign on as a co-sponsor. Nor did liberal lion Alan Cranston of California. As best as I can tell, doing some research, there were only three co-sponsors in the early days: Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon (both of them Republicans) and Sen. Daniel Moynihan of New York (a Democrat). Too hot to handle.
By June of 1980, when I was running the platform committee for Kennedy and we were fighting about just about everything, I asked some of our most prominent gay supporters whether they wanted to do a platform fight over gay rights at the Democratic National Convention. They did not. I understood: fear of backlash, of being blamed, of ultimately losing on the convention floor. Those were brave guys, but it was 1980. Later, I learned that one by one most of them died of AIDS.
In 1984 and 1988, we just did it. We put gay rights on the platform. We expanded the party’s commitment to reproductive freedom (it took a minority report to get the words in back in 1980). These weren’t the reasons we lost either election, although to hear some people tell it, we turned the Democratic Party into the left-wing equivalent of the tea party.
Of course, there is a long tradition of reform, beginning with the party platform and then – a decade or two later, in the case of civil rights – making its way from platform plank to law.
Or three decades.
This week, nearly 30 years after the Democratic Convention denounced discrimination based on sexual orientation (without even a roll call vote), the United States Senate finally passed what I still, with great affection, think of as the Tsongas Bill.
Ten Republicans joined Democrats to pass what is now called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA.
Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, put it best: “This is a really tremendous milestone, a day I will never forget in my service in the Senate. For folks like myself in the LGBT community, the opportunity to be judged in the workplace by your skills and qualifications, your loyalty, your work ethic is an important pronouncement for this nation.”
And it’s long overdue.
Thirty-four years after Tsongas first introduced the legislation in Congress.
Seventeen years after he died of lymphoma.
I still remember all the naysayers and the various parades of horribles about gay teachers (as if the issue is sexual orientation and not sexual abuse) and indoctrination (as if people are “indoctrinated” into being gay) and immorality. And then AIDS came along, and we lost so many of the leaders of the anti-discrimination movement, and so many others found themselves overwhelmed fighting a plague.
And for a while, after President Clinton’s initial foray into dealing with the prohibition on gays in the military turned into a political disaster, after so many people explained to me that gay marriage was a dead loser and a political danger, after so many of my friends, so afraid of the right, supported the Defense of Marriage Act even though they knew it was wrong, I wondered whether change would come in my lifetime. It is coming.
Paul’s widow, Niki Tsongas, is now a member of the House. I think about how much it would mean for her to cast a vote to make law what her husband, 34 years ago, knew was right. It’s all up to Speaker John Boehner. Equality should not be a partisan issue.