In 2022, many LGBTQIA+ Americans still don’t have basic legal protections. Just 22 states (and Washington, D.C.) have explicit non-discrimination laws and policies on the books, which means roughly half of the queer and trans population lives in states that don’t protect their rights, jobs or access to housing, credit and education. The result? A patchwork of laws that varies from state to state.
Without a comprehensive — or permanent — federal law in place that protects queer and trans people from discrimination, members of the LGBTQIA+ community will continue to face obstacles that threaten and disrupt their lives. For a long time, queer and trans people, and their allies, have pushed to make the Equality Act the law of the land.
While the legislation gained some momentum in Congress over the last few years, it has stalled, leaving LGBTQIA+ rights hanging in the balance. So, what’s going on with the Equality Act, and what can you do about it?
What Is the Equality Act?
As you may know, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation that was set in place to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, color, race, and national origin. These protections extended to education, employment, public accommodations, federally funded programs and, eventually, housing. Put simply, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in order to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as well.
Although it’s in the news today, the origins of the Equality Act stretch back to 1974 when activist and U.S. Representative Bella Abzug and former New York City mayor Ed Koch brought an anti-discrimination bill to the House of Representatives. But the effort to bring awareness to LGBTQIA+ rights and protections didn’t make the news. In fact, “its introduction did not even merit mention in any media other than in the Congressional Record,” WBUR reports.
Since then, federal LGBTQIA+ anti-discrimination legislation has been introduced in all but one Congressional session. In 1996, it seemed like federal protections for queer and trans Americans might just become the law of the land, but the Senate failed to pass the proposed bill by a single vote. And that brings us to today.
How Does The Equality Act Relate to Current Anti-LGBTQ+ & Anti-Trans Laws?
“On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to protect LGBTQIA+ Americans from discrimination,” writes Kate Bove in our previous coverage of the Equality Act. “Although the order marked a milestone in civil rights protections, advocates of the Equality Act want to codify these protections, and those affirmed in the Bostock v. Clayton County ruling, into law; after all, an executive order can be undone with the stroke of a pen.”
This need for federal protections couldn’t be greater than it is today. From Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation to the many, many state laws targeting queer and trans youth and their families, 2022 has seen a record number of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, all of which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) keeps track of on their site. NPR reports that “[As of April 2022,] there have been more than 200 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced in nearly 40 states” — a truly jaw-dropping amount.
Not only are trans students — and trans people at large — being systematically barred from using the restrooms that align with their gender, but trans youth are being banned from sports and harassed in schools. In states like Texas, families of trans kids were targeted for affirming their children; in Alabama, it’s now a crime to provide gender-affirming care to trans kids.
If passed, the Equality Act would essentially nullify these discriminatory state policies, extending protections to all queer and trans Americans. This would mean protection from discrimination, harrassment and exclusion at work and school, when applying for housing, and while in public spaces, among other things.
So, What’s the Next Step?
On February 25, 2021, the House passed the Equality, which means, as of May 2022, the next step involves introducing the bill to the Senate so that it can be voted on and, hopefully, passed by those lawmakers, too. That’s going to be difficult, though; currently, we have a tied senate and many Republicans who oppose the bill. A chunk of those opponents believe the Equality Act would infringe upon religious freedom and override the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
What many of those who oppose the bill don’t realize is that religious freedom is about allowing people to practice their faith (or lack thereof) free from discrimination. It does not allow Person A to dictate what other people can do — or what freedoms they’re allowed.
For example, if Person A is part of a religious denomination that forbids alcohol, they can’t forbid others from drinking just because they can’t do so. In this case, if their denomination or church discriminates against LGBTQIA+ people, their religious freedom still doesn’t mean they can evict, fire, not hire, or otherwise discriminate against those outside their religion, church, or denomination.
In short, practicioners can follow their faith without dictating how someone else lives, and they shouldn’t be able to cite their religion as a reason for discriminating against others.
What Can You Do to Help Garner Support for the Equality Act?
Sure, you’re not the one who turns bills into laws, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. There are plenty of actions you can take both online and off to help push the Equality Act closer to becoming the law of the land.
Contact Your Senators
Each state has two senators. If you live in a state where both of your senators support the bill and stated they will sign it, that’s great! However, you still need to contact them to show that you — one of the people they represent — support it, too.
If you live in a state where one or both of your senators oppose(s) the bill, contacting them to show your support for the bill reiterates where the people they’re representing stand on the Equality Act. A ringing phone is certainly harder to ignore, but you can always email them if you’re nervous.
Voice Support For the Equality Act Online
The local news doesn’t cover everything that’s happening in the world or even the country, which is why many people don’t know that specific bills haven’t advanced yet. Voicing your support for the Equality Act online and raising awareness of its current stagnation can help garner public support and interest. In turn, that can effect what lawmakers choose to focus on, too.
Voice Support For Ending Gerrymandering
You may wonder what gerrymandering has to do with the Equality Act, but it impacts legislation and voting in all sorts of ways. Gerrymandering is the act of manipulating electoral district boundaries; politicians redraw their legislative district lines to gain the most voters in a given area. In June of 2019, the Supreme Court announced a 5–4 decision, stating that unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering wasn’t their concern as it presented non-justiciable questions.
Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont and South Dakota don’t have gerrymandering issues. In 2019, the Senate introduced the Redistricting Reform Act, which would require a state-established independent commission that would require that any redistricting plan have support from one member of the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties.
As of yet, the Redistricting Reform Act has also not passed in the Senate. However, advocating for the Redistricting Reform Act can help end gerrymandering and, in turn, make sure voters’ voices are heard more truthfully and equitably.
Vote For Those Who Support the Equality Act
If you don’t have a senator who supports the bill, find someone who does and help support and elect them in an upcoming senatorial race. (You could even run yourself!)
Even though marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015, LGBTQIA+ people are still denied basic rights and freedoms due to discriminatory policies that target them simply for being themselves. Passing the Equality Act would ensure the same basic protections at the federal level for all Americans — a much better framework than the current state-by-state patchwork situation today.
Remember that there are many ways to get involved, no matter your past political or organizing experience.