The path forward on LGBT equality
At this time last year, the Human Rights Campaign and allied LGBT organizations faced more than 100 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation across dozens of states; together, we defeated almost all of them. Since then, we have seen anti-LGBT activists continue to refocus the energy and resources they once spent fighting marriage equality on even more efforts to write discrimination into our nation’s body of laws.
As a result, we’ve battled nearly 200 anti-LGBT bills across 34 states in the first ten weeks of 2016. Once again, working in coalitions with our national and state partners, courageous private sector leaders and pro-equality allies all across the country, more than half of those bills are now dead. Together with the ACLU of South Dakota, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Center for Equality, a broad chorus of allies and, importantly, a Republican Governor who was willing to listen and to lead, we even succeeded in defeating a bill in South Dakota that would have denied transgender students access to public facilities in accordance with their gender identity.
But this week, our community suffered two heartbreaking losses in Kansas and in North Carolina. On Wednesday, with one shameful stroke of his pen, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed a bill that forces public universities to fund student organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ students. Then yesterday, North Carolina’s legislature rammed through a deplorable and deeply harmful bill in a 10-hour special session that was specifically convened to overturn protections for LGBT people and sanction discrimination statewide. Democrats were given only five minutes to review the bill before debate, and then testimony was cut off after two minutes. In the Senate, every Democrat walked out of the chamber in protest.
The shocking bigotry and disregard for LGBT people — and particularly those who are transgender — on display from Republican lawmakers in North Carolina this week was wrenching. HRC, along with Equality North Carolina and other local partners, had worked to elect a pro-equality majority to the Charlotte City Council that would pass non-discrimination protections in Charlotte. After securing that majority, the Charlotte City Council voted for those protections last month. Ignoring the will of voters and the dire need to protect all North Carolinians from discrimination, anti-LGBT state lawmakers yesterday called an “emergency session” and in less than 24 hours not only preempted the law, but blocked all future non-discrimination protections anywhere in the state. Governor Pat McCrory appeared immune to reason — refusing to even pause and consider input from North Carolina businesses, Charlotte voters and taxpayers across the state. Instead, he plowed ahead and in the dark of night signed this bill into law, putting tens of thousands of people at risk of discrimination and jeopardizing the state’s economy. By allowing discrimination against transgender public school students, the bill also risks $4.5 billion in federal funding that the state receives under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
This is a devastating defeat for all of us, but especially for LGBT people in North Carolina. The disappointment, anger and fear many are feeling today is beyond words. What’s worse is this will likely not be our last defeat. But even one loss is too many. Real and irreparable harm is being inflicted on LGBT people — in North Carolina, in Kansas and in dozens of other states. That is exactly why we are fighting in state legislatures across the country to erase the stain of discrimination that tarnishes far too many places in our country.
In the more than 35 years that HRC has been on the frontlines in the fight for equality, we’ve seen time and again that we win when we bring together broad coalitions that include diverse community leaders, faith leaders, family and children’s welfare advocates, business allies and our army of grassroots volunteers. We win when we refuse to be divided and when we don’t allow our opponents to distract from the core of what we are fighting for: full equality for all LGBT people. And, of course, we only win when we have elected leaders at every level of government who fight with us, and not against us. Even in 2016, after all our community has accomplished — from nationwide marriage equality, to landmark hate crimes protections, to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — there are still shameful politicians in far too many states who will stop at nothing to see discrimination enshrined into law.
In North Carolina, our coalition did not reach the crucial tipping point we needed, despite overwhelming public support for LGBT equality. HRC and Equality North Carolina had support from some stalwart business leaders — Dow, PayPal, Redhat, Biogen — but unfortunately, others stayed silent despite our efforts. And North Carolina’s anti-LGBT leadership in both the General Assembly and the Governor’s Mansion were hell bent on blocking Charlotte’s ordinance from day one, using the rights and lives of LGBT people for political gain in an election year. They were intent on blocking debate, from both lawmakers and the public, and completing their attack before the national spotlight ever had a chance to focus on the sham they called governing.
Much as we’ve seen before in cities like Houston, our opponents used “bathroom panic” to tag Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance as dangerous to the public, peddling vile smears against transgender people along the way. History is littered with similar examples — from parental consent laws to TRAP laws to voter ID laws — of our opponents pitting people against each other, and using fear to distract people from the fundamental issues of basic equality and fairness. As a movement, we must recognize the work we have to do ahead. Amplifying the stories of transgender Americans and their families — making laws and policies that ensure they can come out and be visible without fear of harassment or violence — is key to our future victories. This isn’t about a 24-hour campaign tactic — it’s a campaign that will take months and years.
Sadly, we do not yet live in an era when these victories are inevitable. And while it would certainly be easier if we chose to fight only the winning battles, that is not why we do this work. We fight even when the climb appears steep and insurmountable. That’s what HRC and our more than 1.5 million members and supporters have done for decades, and it’s what we will continue to do.
That’s why even after this defeat, we’re not done fighting for the people of Charlotte and North Carolina. That’s why we’re continuing our efforts to defeat anti-LGBT bills still pending, including in Georgia, where we have mobilized a broad coalition — from major Georgia-based companies to Hollywood studios — to urge Governor Nathan Deal to do the right thing and veto discrimination.
Ultimately, that is also why we must continue to build momentum for the Equality Act — bipartisan federal legislation that would once and for all end this unacceptable patchwork of state laws that leave far too many LGBT people vulnerable to discrimination. Since we introduced the Equality Act with a record-number of original co-sponsors less than a year ago, we’ve seen support continue to grow. We’ve gained Republican co-sponsors in both houses of Congress, and a broad coalition of businesses calling for action.
A person’s fundamental rights and protections shouldn’t depend on which side of a state border you reside, and it is incumbent on Congress and our judicial system to address that systemic inequality. Not only do a significant majority of Americans agree — an even larger margin believes this is already the law of the land. But, until we build the bipartisan majority needed to pass the Equality Act in Congress and elect a president who will sign it into law, we must continue to fight these battles — in cities like Charlotte, in states like North Carolina and Georgia, and everywhere that LGBT people find their rights under siege by those who have cemented their feet on the wrong side of history.