equality act congress

This Year Will Congress Protect the LGBTQ Community or Abandon Us?

The United States Congress is on the brink of a showdown over LGBT equality, and the next few months will determine whether queer Americans will finally get the protections enjoyed by other disenfranchised minorities — or whether they’ll be condemned to even greater suffering.

Democrats vs. Republicans

On one side of this fight are Democrats, who’ve long supported a bill that would extend protections in housing, employment, education, and more. And on the other side are Republicans, who seek to strip queer people of what limited rights exist in a handful of states.

The battle exists because of a loophole in the 1960s-era Civil Rights Act, which provides protections on the basis of race, sex, religion, and more. But it doesn’t protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, at least not yet. Some limited rulings have held that the mention of “sex” should extend to LGBT citizens, but that’s far from settled law at this point.

That’s a problem, because in most states queer people can be denied a job, a place to live, education, financial services, and more based simply on their sexual orientation.

Where the Equality Act Came From

The solution is the Equality Act, which has been simmering in Congress since at least 1974. Back then, it was developed by New York Rep Bella Abzug and Ed Koch (long rumored to be a closeted politician, Koch’s disregard for the HIV epidemic has left him with a tortured legacy).

At that point, the Civil Rights Act was a decade old and the Stonewall Riots had changed the national conversation around LGBT equality. It was clear that a fix was needed, but the bill quickly died in committee.

Since then, efforts to bring it back and started and stopped, but in the last few years it’s had a surge of support — particularly around the time that the US Supreme Court legalized the freedom to marry in 2015. At that time, companies including Apple, Dow, Levi’s, American Airlines, Nike, and many more endorsed the proposal, along with President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Repeated Failures

Alas, the bill still languished in committee despite healthy support. The 2015 version had 178 House co-sponsors and 42 co-sponsors in the Senate, but that wasn’t enough to push it to a vote.

That could change this year, though. The Equality Act of 2017 has more co-sponsors than ever: 194 in the House and 45 in the Senate. And the need for the act has never been more stark, with a plague of bills popping up around the country that would revoke rights for queer citizens.

An Urgent Need

Those bills take a variety of forms. Some seek to deny trans students equal access to education by giving schools special dispensation to kick them off of sports teams or prevent them from using bathrooms.

Other bills seek to give government officials the latitude to choose which laws they can ignore when dealing with same-sex couples. And other bills, passed at the state level, seek to cancel out nondiscrimination laws passed by local jurisdictions.

What’s Next

Even worse: Donald Trump has said that he would sign a nationwide version of a bill that would allow anyone to disregard nondiscrimination laws.

That’s led to the current showdown in Congress, with one bill to extend limited protections nationwide, and another to wipe out what few exist. Which bill passes — if either — depends, in part, on which Americans are able to pressure their Congressional leaders with the most noise.

 

Featured image courtesy of BG Productions