Picture this: Your trans child, a young teen, is playing in the big game. They’re a star player — how proud you are — and thus they’re double covered. On a breakaway, they get swarmed, they collide, and everyone sees the injury. Before you know it, you’re helping them off the field and rushing them to the doctor (it’s a broken bone, you’re sure of it). Once there, however, the doctor refuses to serve and help them because, and they’re explicit about this, of how they look, the way they identify themselves, who they are. What do you do?
In 29 states today, you have no recourse. In many cases, the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from discrimination based on their identity. But everyone from business owners to landlords to doctors can still openly discriminate against LGBT+ people, denying them employment, housing, or even medical care because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Equality Act, which the Senate held its first hearing for this week, aims to end the possibility of any such discrimination with a new federal law.
Building on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which already guarantees protection against discrimination on the basis of sex, the Equality Act explicitly names gender identity and sexual orientation as protected categories and expands nondiscrimination protections to cover much of the public arena.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the House passed the act in 2019, but it failed to pass in the Senate. Now, it has another, better chance, says Fran Hutchins, executive director of the Equality Federation, the national head of state organizations working for LGBT+ equality. Hutchins explains why the Equality Act is so important for queer and trans kids and parents, how the current trans sports controversy being drummed up now is a red herring, and how parents can help get the act to President Biden’s desk.
Why is the Equality Act so important?
There are now 29 states where LGBTQ people are not protected by law from discrimination in places like retail stores, malls, and other areas of public accommodation, housing and lending, even in jury service. This law will close significant gaps in our existing civil rights laws. Every year, the Equality Federation tracks hundreds of pieces of legislation, and we see how different it is from state to state. For example, the state where I live currently, Minnesota, has had non-discrimination protections in place for more than 20 years. The state that I’m from, Alabama, does not have those protections. When I drive from Minnesota home to see my mom in Alabama, I drive through four states that also don’t have protections. This patchwork of laws across the country is not sustainable. It’s not good for our economy. It’s not good for folks who want to be able to be mobile and move states.
What are the arguments against the Equality Act, and how do you respond to them?
There are two threads that are coming up on our opposition’s side. First, there’s a concern that the Equality Act will hamper people’s ability to practice their religion. The witnesses today drove home that that is not actually the case. Freedom of religion is foundational. It’s guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution. And it’s something that we all value. When we talk about what it means to freely practice religion, we’re talking about being able to worship in the way that your religion sees fit. The First Amendment does not give you a right to discriminate. It does not give you the right to exclude people from social activities and from services.
Another thread that kept coming up in the opposition was this idea that somehow the Equality Act would affect women’s sports. We’ve also seen this come up at a state level; we’ve got now more than 50 bills in state legislatures that would restrict transgender young people from being part of a sports team where they feel like they belong. This is confusing, because the Equality Act itself does not deal with sports. It feels like this is just an argument that the opposition is bringing up because they feel it resonates. It feels disingenuous, to be honest. Because transgender kids want to play sports for the same reason that other kids want to play sports. They want to be on a team. They want to feel like they belong. Stella Keating, who was the witness today, who’s a 16 year old trans girl from Washington, said that before COVID, she was interested in joining her school bowling team. Because she wanted to hang out with her friends.
But the Equality Act itself doesn’t address sports. The Equality Act protects millions of Americans, LGBTQ people, women, people of color — who are not covered actually in public places — and their entire argument is an attempt to sow fear and misinformation, and to distract us from what this bill is really about. This bill is really about creating equality for LGBTQ people.
How would the Equality Act protect trans and queer children?
One of the things that really resonated with me was listening to Stella Keating talk today in the hearing about her future. She’s 16, she’s starting to look at colleges, and she lives in a state right now where she enjoys the protections of non-discrimination laws at the state level. But as she looks at colleges, she has to reckon with the fact that there are 29 or so states where there are not these protections. What’s going to happen to her when she finds a college outside of her state, but it’s in a state where she doesn’t have protections?
She also talked about her future career. What does it mean for a trans kid to think, I want to be an engineer, or her thing was she wants to be a civil rights lawyer, but only in the states where I can get an apartment without being discriminated against? In a real way, the Equality Act protects folks from discrimination; trans young people can’t be thrown out of the ice cream shop for looking a certain way, which is great. But on a larger scale, it’s about this future for them and being able to think about the whole United States as a place of opportunity, as a place of freedom. A place where they can grow up and live fulfilling lives without having to worry about the types of discrimination that we know folks are facing currently.
How would the Equality Act affect queer and trans parents, including those who want to adopt children?
In federally funded programs and in state-run programs, there’s not discrimination around that. However, in some religiously affiliated adoption and foster care programs, there is discrimination on selection of parents. The Equality Act could help with that. But the opposition also has a case right now in front of the Supreme Court, and it’s trying to answer that exact question. So that is something in limbo.
The Equality Act would also make it so that hospitals and any other organization that serves the general public could not discriminate against anyone on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. They could not refuse to provide medical care to someone just because they’re transgender.
Most institutions don’t actually desire to discriminate. What I’m trying to drive home is that this really isn’t one side or the other, like religious institutions against the Equality Act. It is a very small number of religious institutions against the Equality Act. Very, very many religious institutions already serve LGBTQ people, whether it’s through shelters, whether it’s through adoption, foster care, or food banks. There really isn’t this sharp divide that I think that folks are trying to draw.
The Equality Act is mainly protecting queer and trans people, but you also mentioned that it expands protections for women and people of color. How does it do that?
Public accommodations are things like shopping in a store or visiting a movie theater. And people are shocked to find out that public accommodations protections are not uniform across the country when it comes to race, ethnicity, and even religion and national origin. The Equality Act would expand these protections to all those classes as well.
Do you think the Senate will pass the act?
It’s early, so I don’t think we’re going to see a vote on it for a little while. But I think that right now is a really important moment. It’s the first time that we have a pro-equality majority in the Senate. We have to eventually get to 60 votes. But this is the best opportunity that we’ve had to pass this. President Biden has promised that he will sign this when it hits his desk. In the past, we have not had a president who was committed to making this law. So really, the stars are aligning. I cannot make a prediction, but it is the best opportunity that we have.
We’re talking about folks in those 29 states — real humans — who are trying to go through their lives every day, folks like Stella, who are just trying to think about what their future is going to be like, people who are trying to bring home a paycheck during the coronavirus pandemic, people who are trying to provide for their families. If the Senate fails to pass this this year, it’s going to be a major failure for those people.
How can parents support the Equality Act?
The Senators who are going to be deciding this need to hear from their constituents. They need to receive emails and phone calls. They need to be tagged on social media. This is the moment for us to create a groundswell of support for this law, because it’s really the first opportunity that we have to get it passed through both houses.
The other really important thing that folks can do is talk to their friends and neighbors. Because some of what the opposition is saying is patently false, but it’s still kind of appealing, right? Like none of us actually want women’s sports to be harmed, but that’s not what’s going on. Yet when you say something like, this is going to harm women’s sports, and people don’t spend the time doing research or thinking about it, or talking about it with their friends, that might be what they remember. So I think it’s important to talk to friends and neighbors about what this means and why it’s so urgent.