Congress Should Pass the Equality Act
Cecilia de la Guardia (PPS ‘24)
In 18 states, there is no legal protection for LGBTQ+ people who face housing discrimination. In 21 states, members of the queer community can be refused service and denied entry to public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, and bakeshops. In 35 states, there is no law prohibiting banks from denying loans to people based off their sexual orientation or gender identity. Up until two years ago, companies could fire their employees because of who they loved or what gender they identified as.
The United States Federal Government should pass the Equality Act to enshrine LGBTQ+ rights in federal anti-discrimination statutes. The act is a landmark piece of LGBTQ+ legislation that would elevate sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class, similar to race, sex, and national origin. The law would protect LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination across many areas of society, including housing, employment, public spaces, crediting services, jury service, and in federally funded programs. The bill was passed in the house last spring but has not yet made it to a vote in the Senate where Democrats have a razor-thin majority.
Federal action on this front is long overdue in this country. While there are wide ranging civil rights laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, and national origin, there are few areas where federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The most recent win on this front was the 2020 Supreme Court case, Bostock v. Clayton County. This case clarified that federal law that prohibits employees from discriminating based on sex also protected against gender and sexual orientation based discrimination. However, this narrow ruling only interpreted “sex” to mean this in the case of employment discrimination. There is still no explicit federal legislation to protect the LGBTQ+ community against discrimination in housing, healthcare, crediting, and public accommodations. This was made clear when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. While this case was a limited ruling that did not definitively decide the issue of discrimination in public accommodations based on religious freedom, the Supreme Court took up a similar case for its 2022 docket. This ruling by the conservative majority court is expected to come out in June.
Across the country, queer rights are under attack. The Florida governor recently signed the so-called “Don’t say gay” bill into law. This law prohibits discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity that is not “age-appropriate” and bans the topic completely from kindergarten until the third grade. In Utah, lawmakers overturned a governor veto of a bill that will ban trans youth from participating in girls sports. The Texas governor ordered health care professionals to report gender-affirming care as child abuse and attempted to shut down a public school pride parade in Austin.
All of these actions come with a heavy price. LGBTQ+ youth are already four times as likely to commit suicide than their straight and cisgendered peers. Studies have shown that stress related to discrimination and social stigma directly contributes to these health disparities. Fostering inclusive environments is essential for the queer community, especially for the youth. Research has shown that queer youth that have access to at least one identity-affirming space have a 35% reduced chance of attempting suicide, especially if that space is in school.
Sexual orientation and gender identity should not be treated differently in federal law than other protected classes such as race, sex, and national origin. How someone presents themselves or who they love should not be grounds for discriminatory behavior in this country. Not only can updated legislation help individuals combat cases of discrimination; it can also lead to increased social acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. A study conducted after the legalization of same-sex marriage found that the ruling increased people’s perceived social acceptance of same-sex issues. Similarly, recent polling found that leaders publically supporting LGBTQ+ issues increased people’s acceptance of the community. The queer community is facing unprecedented attacks, and their rights are being rolled back daily. It is time to stop this country from regressing on civil rights. It is time for leaders in Washington to step up and support the LGBTQ+ community. It is time for the federal government to sign the Equality Act into law.
Cecilia de la Guardia (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.