This week, the Equality Act was reintroduced in the House of Representatives in an effort to historically expand protections for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. In a Friday statement, President Joe Biden explained the urgency of passing this act — and why it’s one of his first major actions since taking office.
“Every person should be treated with dignity and respect, and this bill represents a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all,” Biden said. “The Equality Act provides long overdue federal civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, locking in critical safeguards in our housing, education, public services, and lending systems — and codifying the courage and resilience of the LGBTQ+ movement into enduring law.”
If fully passed, the Equality Act would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to include specific protections for LGBTQ+ people. As a baseline, it would legally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in more public places, including schools. It would also lead to more housing opportunities, more comprehensive healthcare for transgender people, and the eradication of conversion therapy, among other critical issues the community faces.
The bill originally passed the House in May 2019 but didn’t move forward in the then Republican-controlled Senate. Now, it’s expected to pass the House again but could still face challenges due to the 50-50 partisan divide in the Senate.
But passing the Act in both the House and Senate could lay an unprecedented foundation for the future of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. According to GLAAD, if both the House, Senate and Biden signed, the Equality Act would be “the most comprehensive federal LGBTQ civil rights legislation ever to become law.”
According to The LGBT Movement Advancement Project (LGBT MAP), which wrote a guide explaining why the Equality Act is so needed, it will fundamentally change the experience of people of all genders by expanding the number of public spaces where LGBTQ+ people have rights. Currently, the 1964 Civil Rights law doesn’t apply to retail stores, hair salons, entertainment venues, bars, nightclubs, and transportation services.
This also comes at a time where protections are perhaps more needed than ever: As of 2021, 27 states still have no nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people; landlords in states like Florida can refuse to rent a property to a queer couple, and college students in Southern states like Tennessee can be thrown out of school for being transgender. Last year, a hospital in Maryland even refused to treat a transgender man because he’s trans.
“Transgender people in particular have been denied an equal playing field at school, at work, and throughout our lives,” Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson for National Women’s Law Center, tells Refinery29. “My hope, however, is lawmakers will recognize this as a foundation for economic justice and not wash their hands of the needs of transgender people once it is signed into law.”
In the last few years, incidents of reported hate crimes have reached their highest level in more than a decade, with more than 7,300 incidents reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2019, according to the Human Rights Campaign. But, if passed, this legislation would update civil rights laws to include explicit protections for LGBTQ+ people in almost every aspect of federal law: providing transformational new legal protections for so many marginalized groups that have been harmed by the lack of a federal legal blueprint; making more protections available for women, expanding existing protections for disabled people, houseless people, people of color, immigrants, and people of minority faiths.
The Act would provide clear and vital protections across employment, housing, public places and accommodations, health care, credit, education, federal jury service, and federally funded programs. Specifically, discrimination at work, denying someone housing, behaving in harmful ways towards those in the foster care system, refusing to serve someone for their gender identity and/or sexuality would become illegal across the country. And that would open the door to radically change the way that all systems function in America.
GLAAD’s research also shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans already support protecting LGBTQ people from systemic discrimination. According to the media advocacy organization’s research, up to 91% of Americans believe that discrimination against LGBTQ+ family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors should be illegal. The Equality Act secures those core values of fairness and equal treatment to protect LGBTQ+ people everywhere, and allows us the chance at full participation in all areas of American life, says CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.
What is perhaps most significant about this legislation is what it means for the future of LGBTQ+ youth in this country. Dylan Waguespack, Public Policy Director at True Colors United, explains, “LGBTQ+ people would have the freedom to exist as themselves, and equity work can become the true focus.”
“There being one federal standard that creates uniformity will allow us all, in all movement spaces, to go from a movement where we are pending all our time trying to focus on emergency shelters and emergency situations of other natures in the community and to make sure that LGBTQ+ people just have access to basic resources and housing to begin with, so we can thrive and not just survive,” Waguespack says.
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