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LGBTQ+ issues

The LGBTQ Equality Act is back. Its sponsors are ‘optimistic’ for Senate victory.

The Daily Beast

February 25, 2021

Despite GOP lawmakers’ apparent opposition, Equality Act sponsors David Cicilline and Jeff Merkley tell The Daily Beast they are confident the historic LGBTQ bill will be passed.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) spoke for five minutes in Congress on Wednesday against the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people under federal law. Greene said there should be no discrimination against anyone in America but opined that the historic bill was “too much,” that it put “trans rights above women’s rights,” and then quoted Genesis to insist that “God created us male and female.”

Next, Greene tried to get Congress to adjourn, before what is expected to be a vote Thursday. The move failed, but she was supported by her Republican colleagues—revealing either their lionization of her or their attitudes to LGBTQ equality, or perhaps both.

Greene wasn’t done. Next, on Twitter she launched a vicious personal attack on her colleague Rep. Marie K. Newman (D-IL), who has a transgender daughter, telling her: “Your biological son does NOT belong in my daughters’ bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams.”

Newman’s office is opposite Greene’s. Newman put a transgender pride flag up outside her office, which she hoped Greene would see. Greene responded by putting up a sign facing Newman’s office reading: “There are two genders: Male and Female. ‘Trust the science.’”

The right-wing hysteria over the Equality Act, specifically set around issues of “religious freedom” and trans teenagers playing sports and accessing medical care, looks set to ratchet higher. Republican official and lawyer Harmeet Dhillon told Tucker Carlson on his Wednesday show that if passed, the Equality Act would see “women being replaced by men posing as women in every facet of our lives.”

Whatever the level of toxicity, the Equality Act, as it has before, will likely pass in the House. Given the support shown to Greene on Wednesday, the unknown is if it will receive more or less than the eight Republican votes it received the last time it was voted on there in 2019. Its future in the Senate is more uncertain, even if its sponsors tell The Daily Beast today that they are optimistic that they can garner the votes of 10 Republican senators to secure its passing.

The act would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. If passed, it would set into a specific law around sexual orientation and gender identity the principle of the ruling in the landmark Supreme Court case last year, in which the definition of sex discrimination was extended to include discrimination suffered by LGBTQ Americans.

The protections in the Equality Act apply to employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service. The act would prohibit discrimination in public spaces and services and federally funded programs on the basis of sex. The act would also, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “update the public spaces and services covered in current law to include retail stores, services such as banks and legal services, and transportation services.”

The act also states that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be used as a weapon of anti-LGBTQ people discrimination.

The controversy around religious liberty has led to the presence of a rival bill, set to be introduced Friday by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) according to the Washington Blade, called the Fairness for All Act. Stewart—who initially proposed it last year—is promoting the bill as a compromise between the desires of both LGBTQ and religious liberty campaigners.

However, LGBTQ advocates remain adamant that the end result of any legislative wrangling cannot be to enshrine discrimination against LGBTQ people through exemptions, religious or otherwise, that bills like Stewart’s might include.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), the Equality Act’s lead sponsor in Congress, told The Daily Beast his focus remained on getting the Equality Act passed in the House on Thursday. He said that he remained optimistic he and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR)—lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate—could secure the 10 votes necessary to see the Equality Act passed in the Senate, even though the bill has no vocal public support, as yet, among Republican senators. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have both signaled their initial opposition to it; Collins, reported the Washington Blade, is even considering presenting her own bill.

Cicilline and Merkley point to the overwhelming support for the Equality Act among Americans, and among Republican voters. But whether those general voters—and Republican voters in particular—are actively contacting their representatives to convey their passion for the principles of the Equality Act is unknown. Republican representatives’ relative silence on the issue would imply not; or that it is not a galvanizing issue for their constituents—as yet at least.

Introducing the bill, the men said that in 27 states a person can be denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQ people can also be denied access to education in 31 states, and the right to serve on a jury in 41 states. “In 29 states, Americans can still be evicted, be thrown out of a restaurant, or be denied a loan because of who they are or whom they love,” Merkley said in a recent statement.

Cicilline told The Daily Beast, “This is a question of Congress catching up to where the American people are. I believe ultimately we will be successful in persuading senators that the Equality Act represents the basic and founding principle of this country—equal treatment under the law. Discrimination is wrong, and discrimination against the LGBTQ community is real.”

In a statement sent to The Daily Beast, Merkley said: “This is an exciting moment for the Equality Act, with more momentum than in any previous Congress. Getting 60 votes for a major piece of legislation is never easy, and my Senate partners and I are working hard to lay the groundwork for Senate action on the Equality Act this year.

“When I brought the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the Senate floor in 2013, there were not yet 60 votes to pass the bill, and I worked extensively with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to build support for the legislation while it was on the floor. Ultimately, the Senate passed it by a nearly two-to-one margin and I’m hopeful we can make that kind of progress again.

“I have to believe that there are at least 60 senators who believe in the vision of America of equality and opportunity for all—that no LGBTQ Americans should ever face legalized discrimination in financial transactions, public accommodations, jury duty, housing, and more.”

Cicilline, to The Daily Beast, and Merkley, to the Washington Blade, both signaled that in order to advance the Equality Act, they would like to see the scrapping of the legislative filibuster—even if that seems unlikely in terms of the time it would take to achieve, and the likelihood of Democrat senators like Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) voting against such a move. Cicilline called the filibuster “an undemocratic mechanism, which denies the ability of the voices of the majority to be properly heard.”

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told The Daily Beast he was determined in the coming days and weeks to address “the myths and fears” around the Equality Act and to emphasize its power to enshrine protections for LGBTQ people when trying to convince senators to vote for it.

“I am optimistic that we will appeal to the forces of rationality, fairness, and justice—and not the forces of fear,” David said. “I believe we will ultimately get to a point where those arguments ring hollow.” The arguments around trans teens playing sports and religious freedom were baseless, and being “advanced to create obstacles,” he said.

Cicilline insisted that the Equality Act did not disturb “existing religious exemptions,” and that there was “no evidence that trans women compete more successfully than cis women in sports.” The Equality Act, he said, merely extends existing protections under Title IX (the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools) to trans women. “Sadly, the trans community have been the victims of tremendous discrimination and tremendous violence,” said Cicilline. “Opponents of the Equality Act are trying to ignite opposition to it by using the trans community.”

Religious arguments had once been used against the principle of integrated lunch counters, Cicilline added, “but in the end we decided that people should be free from discrimination and treated equally under the law. Religion cannot be used to deny someone employment or public accommodations. It cannot be used as a basis to discriminate. The question is, are we going to be a country where members of the LGBTQ community are allowed live their lives free of discrimination, and enjoy full protection under the law? The time is long past to answer that question, ‘Yes.’”

This reporter asked David if he thought a “High Noon” situation would eventually be reached, where campaigners from both sides faced off on their differing interpretations of what “religious freedom” meant, and that whoever and whatever prevailed would be reflected in how Republican senators vote—and the passing, or not, of the Act itself.

“I agree that we will eventually get to a ‘High Noon’ in defining civil rights and liberties, and what the relationship is between individual rights and religious exemptions,” David said, “and if we are going to refine religious exemptions that means further eroding individual rights. We can’t enact a piece of legislation that enshrines discrimination in law. ‘Religious freedom’ is not a license to deprive others of their civil rights. Businesses should not be able to use religious exemptions to defend discrimination. It’s not tenable. We want to understand where the concerns are. But we have anti-equality forces framing the issue through a tainted and disjointed lens, basically to enshrine discrimination into statute. We can’t allow that.”

At a future Senate hearing, David hoped that campaigners could present to senators why the Equality Act is important and worthy of support. “We may disagree ideologically, but we shouldn’t disagree on fairness and justice,” he said. “If the majority of Republican voters support the Equality Act, by extension those who are represent them should also at least have an open mind when it comes to supporting it.”

Cicilline conceded to The Daily Beast that if a vote were taken today, the Equality Act would likely not pass the Senate. But he does not believe the votes of Romney and Collins are necessarily lost, and remains confident that—with the support of the majority of Americans, and the hundreds of companies and organizations and campaign groups who have signed up to backing the Equality Act—Senate minds can be changed and critical votes won. He said he wants LGBTQ people and their allies to lobby their senators, making clear why the Act is so important to them and their loved ones.

When it came to the possibility of amendments to the Act, or anything to do with exemptions, Alphonso David told The Daily Beast he would not mull hypotheticals until, or if, they became a reality.

“I don’t know what, if any, potential amendments would be acceptable,” David said. “Suggesting that at some point I could walk into a coffee shop and not be served coffee because I am LGBTQ and for that to be OK under the law, but to be Black and not served coffee and for that not to be OK, would be enshrining discrimination. I am more than happy to engage people’s concerns and questions, but we don’t want to undermine the opportunity for LGBTQ people to thrive in this country.”

Cicilline, as a member of the LGBTQ community and a civil rights lawyer before getting into politics, said that he had seen the results of discrimination. After he was elected mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Cicilline received a letter from a young gay man recovering in hospital after an attempt to end his own life.

“He said that reading about my appointment had made him realize he could make it,” Cicilline told The Daily Beast. “It’s a reminder why things like the Equality Act matter, showing young people they can live their lives free from discrimination and realize their true potential. My responsibility is to make sure that day comes as quickly as possible.”