The United States Congress held its first ever hearings on transgender issues last week.

The two openly gay members of the House of Representatives testified alongside transgender professionals who experienced employment discrimination, representatives of trans groups and business and legal experts.

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin told the House Education and Labour Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labour and Pensions:

“Corporate America and the American people are way ahead of the Congress in acknowledging the basic truth we hold to be self-evident.

“That all of us are created equal, and the laws of the land should reflect that equality.

“The importance of non-discrimination laws cannot be overstated.

“Substantively, they provide real remedies and a chance to seek justice.

“Symbolically, they say to America, judge your fellow citizens by their integrity, character, and talents, not their sexual orientation, or gender identity, or their race or religion, for that matter.

“Symbolically, these laws also say that irrational hate or fear have no place in our work place.

“It is high time that America declare discrimination based on gender identity and expression unlawful.”

Congressional moves to pass a federal law protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans Americans from workplace discrimination fell apart earlier last year amid acrimonious claims and counter-claims over trans rights.

In November the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was passed by the House by 235 to 184.

ENDA was originally designed to make it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or promote a person based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The decision to remove trans people from the scope of the legislation caused anger among the LGBT community in the US, with many demanding an “all or nothing” stance.

Many of the House Democrats serving their first term did not want ENDA to include protections for trans people, fearful of a backlash from conservatives.

“History teaches us that progress on civil rights is never easy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commented at the time.

“It is often marked by small and difficult steps.”

ENDA would need Senate approval before it could become law, but President Bush has already indicated he would veto it.

The White House expressed constitutional concerns that the proposal could “trample” religious rights.

Conservative critics of the bill have said it could undermine the rights of people who oppose homosexuality for religious reasons and may lead to a wave of dubious discrimination lawsuits.

Twelve states, plus the District of Columbia, bar employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

87% of the top Fortune 500 companies in the US already provide protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The US military and religious organisations are excluded from the legislation, which also does not force employers to extend benefits to same-sex partners.

“This hearing was a historic and important step in advancing transgender equality and saving transgender lives,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Centre for Transgender Equality.

The group was one of the key organisers of last Thursday’s hearing, entitled An Examination of Discrimination against Transgender Americans in the Workplace.

In her testimony Congresswoman Baldwin explained what was meant by transgender:

“In the vast majority of the population, an individual’s gender identity and his or her birth sex “match.” But for a small minority of people, gender identity and anatomical sex conflict,” she told the committee.

“Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same and transgender people may be heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual.

“There are thousands of transgender Americans who lead incredibly successful, stable lives, are dedicated parents, contribute immeasurably to their communities, their country.

“I personally know transgender people who work in fields as diverse as defence contracting, broadcasting, community organising, the legal profession – I could go on.

“They have transitioned successfully, many with the full support of their employers.

“Despite these successes, because an individual was born one sex and presents oneself to the world as another-or in a way that other people may think is inconsistent with how a man or a woman should present themselves-he or she can face many forms of discrimination.

“Transgender people also face discrimination in the mundane tasks of the everyday – trying to find housing, apply for credit, or even see a doctor. and, of course, in the focus of today’s hearing: trying to provide for themselves and their families.

“Today, 39% of Americans live in areas explicitly banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression and at least 300 major U.S. businesses now ban discrimination based on gender identity and expression.

“All of us who have had the honour of working in this institution know that one of the greatest things about America is that it is both a nation and an idea.

“Our American Dream promises that no matter where we start, no matter who we are, if we work hard, we will have the opportunity to advance. This Committee can help fulfil that promise.”