Representative Bella Abzug, whose federal gay rights bill led to the Equality Act (Getty)
Republicans have been standing in the way of the Equality Act for so long that many of the bill’s original sponsors aren’t around to see its passage.
LGBT+ advocates celebrated yesterday (25 February) as the sweeping equality legislation passed through the US House. But it now faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where if history is anything to go by, Republicans will fiercely oppose it.
The earliest predecessor of the Equality Act first appeared in 1974, when representative Bella Abzug – nicknamed “Battling Bella” – introduced a bill to protect lesbian and gay people from discrimination.
It was a seminal time for LGBT+ rights in the US – just two years after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness and three years before Harvey Milk’s assassination.
The original bill stated all people should be free from discrimination “regardless of their race, colour, religion, sex, marital status, sexual orientation or national origin”.
These words were among the earliest documented congressional proposals to expand civil rights protections to the LGBT+ community.
Sadly the landmark legislation never even moved out of committee, as it was stalled and ultimately “killed” soon after its introduction. Abzug revived it the following year as the Civil Rights Amendments of 1975, but this too was quashed.
It wasn’t the end: Battling Bella’s bill would be reintroduced, suppressed and reintroduced again in various forms over the next 50 years.
By the time the modern-day Equality Act was reintroduced by Democrats in 2019 it was greeted by 240 co-sponsors in the US House and Senate, meaning that 45 percent of Congress already supported the bill even before it went to a vote.
It would pass through the House by a vote of 236-173, but even so, it wasn’t enough.
Once again the bill was stalled by the Republican-controlled Senate after the Trump administration labelled it a “poison pill” that would “undermine parental and conscience rights”.
The fight continues in 2021 amid an LGBT+ landscape that’s vastly different from where the bill began – and while many hurdles still remain, the Equality Act is undeniably closer to victory than it’s ever been.
Sadly, the battle has been going on for so long now that of the 23 co-sponsors who signed onto the 1975 bill, just a handful are still alive to see its victory.
Bella Abzug, the woman who started it all, passed away in 1998 aged 77. Though she never saw her bill passed into law she continued her tireless advocacy work all her life and was known as a leading figure in feminist and civil rights circles around the world.
A year before her death she received the highest civilian honour at the US, the Blue Beret Peacekeepers Award – a recognition of the legacy of hope and equality she leaves behind.
The Equality Act, a comprehensive, federal, LGBTQ civil rights bill, passed the U.S. House yesterday in a bipartisan vote—and in their speeches before the vote, the two LGBTQ parents in Congress both spoke about their kids and about the wider impact of the legislation.
Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY)
First, let’s recap the Equality Act itself, which would extend several existing federal civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also prohibit discrimination in federally funded programs and public spaces and services on the basis of sex. Its coverage would extend to employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, foster care, adoption, and more, better protecting LGBTQ people, women, and the families so many of us support—and this would strengthen our communities and our nation as a whole.
Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN), a co-chair of the LGBTQ Equality Caucus and an original cosponsor of the Act, said in her speech before the vote (my bold): “As the first openly lesbian wife and mother in Congress … I know this legislation is the culmination of a lifetime of work for so many. My wife Cheryl and I have built a beautiful life together, raising four sons who we dearly love.” Their home state of Minnesota, she said, already offers many of the protections of the Act, but in other states, “it would be entirely legal for Cheryl and I to be discriminated against based on our love and commitment to one another.” Watch her full speech below:
Today, the House will vote on the groundbreaking #EqualityAct. ??????????
As a young lesbian woman growing up in rural America, I never imagined I’d finally see this legislation come to the House floor – much less have a chance to vote for it as a Member of Congress. pic.twitter.com/06v05n64Y2
Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), the highest-ranking out LGBTQ member of the House, a co-chair of the LGBTQ Equality Caucus, and an original cosponsor of the Act, is the father of three children with his husband, Randy Florke. “I was thinking about my kids as I walked onto the floor today,” he said in his speech to the House ahead of the vote, before asserting that the argument of those who oppose the Act is that LGBT people are morally inferior and that discrimination against them must be permitted. “Let history record the vote today,” he concluded. “One side votes for love.” Here are his full words:
The GOP is making outrageous & false claims about the #EqualityAct. They’re lying to confuse & misinform the public.
Today, with the passage of this bill, we exposed those lies & reminded America what this is really about: equality for LGBTQ Americans. No more, no less. pic.twitter.com/L6dTPtuvrN
The Act passed the House 224-206, with all Democrats voting for, along with only three Republicans: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), John Katko (NY), and Tom Reed (NY). It now moves on to the Senate, where it will likely face an uphill battle. Call or e-mail your senators today and urge them to support it.
Last March, during the Democratic presidential primary race, Joe Biden released an ambitious plan to advance LGBTQ+ rights, but at the time it was unclear what he would realistically be able to accomplish if elected with a Republican-controlled Senate. But now that Democrats will narrowly control Congress and the White House for the first time since 2011, many of Biden’s LGBTQ proposals appear much more achievable.
“With Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate, there was no chance we would ever get a vote on any of our stuff,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Trans Equality, said of pro-LGBTQ legislation.
With McConnell, R-Ky., in a minority leader role, the bill faces fewer barriers.
“The opportunity that we have to pass the Equality Act is better now than it’s ever been before,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. “This should be a part of our civil rights laws.”
In Joe Biden’s plan to “advance LGBTQ+ equality in America and around the world,” which is on his campaign website, the president said he “believes every transgender or non-binary person should have the option of changing their gender marker to ‘M,’ ‘F,’ or ‘X’ on government identifications, passports, and other documentation.” As a result, he vowed to support state and federal efforts that permit trans people to have IDs that accurately reflect their gender identity.
Advocates expect Biden to deliver on his promises of immediately undoing Trump policies that targeted LGBTQ people with executive orders or new guidelines.
A place for discussions for and by cis and trans lesbians, bisexual girls, chicks who like chicks, bi-curious folks, dykes, butches, femmes, girls who kiss girls, birls, bois, aces, LGBT allies, and anyone else interested! Our subreddit is named r/actuallesbians because r/lesbians is not really for or by lesbians–it was meant to be a joke. We’re not a militant or exclusive group, so feel free to join up!
On May 14, 1974, Rep. Bella Abzug, a feminist icon in women’s rights movement, introduced one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever ignored. It had just one co-sponsor.
The 10-page bill never moved out of committee. Had it passed, it would have amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was called the Equality Act.
The bill’s modern iteration moved closer to passage with Joe Biden’s projected win on November 7. But maybe not close enough.
Biden has vowed to pass the Equality Act within his first 100 days in office, an unexpected commitment as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic. To do that, however, he will need the backing of a sharply partisan Senate. The bill easily cleared the Democrat-dominated House last year. Its chances of surviving the Senate, where it looks like Republicans will maintain control, is questionable.
Kierra Johnson, incoming executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said that LGBTQ+ policy has long lagged behind cultural acceptance for LGBTQ+ people.
“Unfortunately, I think because of that, we have not passed the Equality Act yet,” Johnson said. “I think people take for granted that there are gay people on TV and queer people running for office and TV shows about trans women, that somehow we have broken the ceiling.”
On October 29, LGBTQ+ media organization GLAAD released new findings showing that 89 percent of straight cisgender Americans falsely believe it illegal to evict someone because they are LGBTQ+. Seventy-nine percent of LGBTQ+ people are under the same impression. Eighty percent of straight cisgender respondents also mistakenly believed that it’s illegal to deny service to LGBTQ+ people in restaurants and bars.
“People tend to think that things they think are wrong are also illegal,” explained David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign.
The Public Religion Research Institute reports that nationally, about 70 percent of Americans support passing LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections.
But just 22 states and Washington, D.C., have housing protections on the books that cover gender identity and sexual orientation, and 21 states and D.C. have LGBTQ+ public accommodation laws. The Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ+ group that tracks protections nationwide, estimates that just under half of LGBTQ+ Americans live in states that shield them from being denied service in restaurants, bars and hotels.
The latest iteration of the Equality Act would change that. It bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public accommodations, education and employment, among other things.
“It cuts off the need to continue to litigate, whether all federal sex discrimination laws provide protections to LGBTQ people,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign.
For years, any significant gains for LGBTQ+ rights have been through the courts.
Democratic control of both the White House and Congress is seen as the most friendly scenario for the Equality Act. But in 2009 and 2010, when Democrats held a supermajority in Congress and Barack Obama was in the White House, there were still no legislation passed granting civil rights to LGBTQ+ people.
There were small steps. Congress repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of dismissing openly LGBTQ+ service members in 2010. Congress failed to pass federal job protections, however, and President Donald Trump’s transgender military took effect in 2018. Congress also green lit the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, a law that many LGBTQ+ rights groups have since abandoned as faith in the criminal legal system wanes.
But the overturning of sodomy laws, the passage of marriage equality, nationwide employment protections — all came through the courts.
Jenny Pizer, law and policy director for Lambda Legal, said there is a reason why LGBTQ+ advocates invested so heavily in advancing equality through litigation.
“Movements about the rights of a minority group, at least in the past, have depended in particular ways on court action,” she said. “The courts are supposed to be enforcers of minority rights and other constitutional rights, including free speech, freedom of assembly and other freedoms guaranteed to us.”
That includes a person’s rights against their own government, she added.
The 1970s, which saw the introduction of the Equality Act, were not easy for LGBTQ+ people. Throughout the decade, more than half of states still had sodomy laws on the books, the last of which were overturned in 2003 by the Supreme Court.
Still, LGBTQ+ advocates gained ground on other issues with a pace that other movement leaders marveled at. The Stonewall Rebellion — a riot against police brutality and homophobia in New York in 1969 — marked the start of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2015, the Supreme Court granted couples of all genders the right to marry. In courts across the country since, transgender students like Gavin Grimm have fought and won for the right to use a restroom that aligns with their gender. This June, the Supreme Court ruled LGBTQ+ people are protected against workplace discrimination.
None of those gains would match the significance of a modern-day Equality Act, advocates say, not because they aren’t important, but because the act rolls a patchwork of court wins into one federal law.
“Unfortunately, I feel like we shortcut ourselves when we talk about marriage, because it’s all of the things that come with marriage,” said Johnson. “What was underneath marriage was all the ways that LGBTQ people were actually not considered a part of family because of how family is defined by marriage, particularly in this country.”
While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of LGBTQ+ workplace protections in the Bostock v. Clayton County case in June, the Trump administration has shown few signs of enforcing the law. The ruling, delivered by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, also came with a caveat: some employers sincerely object to hiring LGBTQ+ people, he said. That statement signals that the court is eager to take up the issue of religious exemptions on LGBTQ+ protections, possibly rendering the ruling substantially less effective.
It’s that very issue, the suggestion that equality for gay and trans people in public life threatens religious freedom, that LGBTQ+ rights advocates have been unable to overcome in securing congressional support for the Equality Act, said Johnson.
“I don’t know, somehow we became the anti-Christ,” Johnson said, laughing. “But I think it becomes really powerful to have progressive or even moderate religious leaders who can speak to the importance of civil rights for queer people and talk about this as not just [something] they believe despite their faith, but because of their faith.”
Data increasingly shows that Republican voters back LGBTQ+ equality. The Human Rights Campaign polled voters in swing states and found that even among Trump voters, the majority of Americans backed transgender access to health care. Still, many Republican lawmakers who say they back equality for marginalized groups see LGBTQ+ rights in particular as inevitably at odds with religious liberty.
As long as that’s the case, the votes for the bill just don’t add up to the 60 it needs to pass.
“We feel like if we brought the bill to the floor, even in the current senate, we could get the votes to get to 51,” said Stacy. “Whether we can get 60 is a different question.”
Photos by Starling Studio via Christian and Clifton’s intimate hometown Ohio wedding at Jeffrey Mansion, featured on Equally Wed, the world’s leading LGBTQ+ wedding magazine
A San Francisco supervisor just put forth legislation that would make racially or discriminatory-motivated 911 calls a crime, and it’s rightfully been named ‘The CAREN Act.’
That’s Caren with a C, which obviously stands for: “Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies”.
Related: Gay man who exposed skincare CEO ‘Karen’ speaks out: “She’s willing to call men with guns”
The bill would hold people who make bogus, racist 911 calls accountable, such as the one made by skincare CEO Lisa Alexander (above) or Amy Cooper in NYC, though the latter falls a few thousand miles outside the proposed legislation’s jurisdiction.
The move was put forth by SF Supervisor Shamann Walton and reflects a broader movement to address the continued issue of misusing emergency services with clearly racist motivations.
Racist 911 calls are unacceptable that’s why I’m introducing the CAREN Act at today’s SF Board of Supervisors meeting. This is the CAREN we need. Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies. #CARENact#sanfrancisco