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.