Despite Senate divisions, now is a golden opportunity to pass the Equality Act
This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.
For nearly a half-century, legislation has been introduced in Congress to extend federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people. Various versions have passed both the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis, but never in the same Congress — despite consistent polling showing overwhelming desire among Americans of all political affiliations for this legislation to become law.
Now is the time — and this is the Congress — to do everything we can to ensure LGBTQ people are protected no matter what zip code they call home. Our window of opportunity may be short, and it may not reopen for years to come.
We represent the leadership of the Freedom and Opportunity for All Coalition, an alliance of 17 LGBTQ and allied national organizations that have come together in a historic way to seize this critical moment. Throughout 2021, our groups have pooled resources and organized our people and our allies to achieve consideration and passage of The Equality Act in the United States Senate.
The Equality Act would update existing federal civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as unlawful grounds for discrimination along with race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It would send a powerful message of inclusion that everyone should have the freedom and opportunity to work hard, earn a living, provide for their families and contribute to communities.
We must do everything possible to pass these protections as soon as we can. The path is not easy. It will require hard work and engaging in good faith dialogue with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as concessions on both sides to reach bipartisan consensus.
How is it that despite a 50-50 Senate, we believe an agreement can be reached?
Because, eventually, adherence to principle, hard work, constituent needs and our better angels will prevail. Just like some in our movement assume the worst of our critics, some of the Equality Act’s opponents are profoundly mistaken about our objectives. Some allege that we seek to constrain religious freedom. Rather, we believe we can protect civil rights and liberties, including the freedom of religion and protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. We have done this successfully in nearly half of all U.S. states and we know we can do so here too.
We have nothing to fear from constructive engagement — it’s how misplaced assumptions are corrected, differences are bridged and legislation becomes law. Our movement has fought for and won comprehensive nondiscrimination and other pro-LGBTQ laws in 21 states. In almost every instance — from New Hampshire to Colorado to Iowa to Wisconsin to Washington — we have found a way forward to protect millions of LGBTQ people while safeguarding the freedom of religion.
Despite this progress, in more than half of the country LGBTQ people lack protection. This affects families when one child has rights, but another does not. It affects businesses when some employees aren’t protected on their way to work. It affects friends and neighbors, who have been denied a job, refused rideshare, denied services by a tax preparer or landscaper, or barred from elder care facilities.
Passing a federal law will not only help end discrimination, but also improve the health, well-being, and sense of belonging of all people including LGBTQ people, our children, colleagues, neighbors, and friends.
As a movement, we have an opportunity to find principles-based common ground with moderate senators. Today’s Senate divide may seem daunting, but it also presents opportunities for bipartisan victories. Protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination enjoys broad and bipartisan support nationwide: 83 percent of Americans support these protections, including 68 percent of conservatives.
There will inevitably be tough conversations. But we believe an agreement can be reached, and we owe it to our communities to try — especially the LGBTQ people living in states without explicit protections, who still face discrimination every day. They constitute a majority of LGBTQ people and include the largest concentrations of LGBTQ people of color and low-income LGBTQ people. Rights and freedoms should not depend on where you live.
Now is the time to move forward in good faith, with courage and conviction. When the Senate is done debating the Build Back Better Act, we must seize the opportunity. We must redouble our efforts to get the Equality Act over the finish line.
We call on senators on both sides of the aisle to come to the table and get this done for people who really need it. By doing so we will all be living up to our shared American ideals of freedom, fairness, and treating people as we all want to be treated.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, and Fran Hutchins, Executive Director of the Equality Federation, are Executive Committee members of the Freedom and Opportunity for All Coalition.