When trying to explain the importance of the Equality Act, Kierra Johnson, director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, only had to think as far as her next trip. “It’s just two and a half hours,” she says from her home in Washington D.C. to visit her mom in Texas. “But it only takes a plane ride, and I’m sitting in a whole new reality.” Under D.C. law, discrimination against LGBTQ people is explicitly banned across all parts of life. But in Texas, there isn’t a single state law that protects LGBTQ people — the state even insists on keeping its sodomy laws on the books. The moment Johnson steps off the plane, she loses every protection she has at home. “The bubble doesn’t follow us wherever we go,” she says.
That’s because there are no federal laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Twenty-one states have passed bills that affirm the rights of LGTBQ people. But for the remaining 29, in the last month and a half alone, they’ve introduced dozens of laws that undermine those rights — like the Alabama law that would make it illegal for doctors to provide transgender health care to minors, and the Oklahoma bill that legalizes “conversion therapy.” If Johnson were to get into a car and drive across the country, her rights — and safety — could change a dozen times along the way.
The Equality Act — the only piece of federal legislation to explicitly affirm LGBTQ civil rights — could rectify that. Democratic Rep. David Cicilline has introduced the bill in every session since 2015, and it passed the House for the first time last year. But with a body-block from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the promise of a presidential veto, the bill stalled. With new leadership, it passed in the House last Thursday with a barely bipartisan majority, and it’s expected to be debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.
The federal stance on LGBTQ people is currently held together by a patchwork of executive orders and two Supreme Court decisions: Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed the right for same-sex couples to marry, and Bostock v. Clayton County, which determined that it was unconstitutional for LGBTQ people to be discriminated against in the workplace. This patchwork covers fundamental parts of queer life, but leaves massive gaps in between — in education, housing, transportation, credit, even jury duty. “People don’t live their lives in pieces,” says Johnson. “It’s great if you are protected in your job, but what happens if you get kicked out of your apartment? That’s still legal in this country.”
At its core, the Equality Act is a civil rights bill; it updates existing legislation to include LGBTQ people as protected classes. By lacing together and modernizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Jury Selection and Services Act, the bill “extends basic protections so that people are treated fairly across all areas of their lives,” says Johnson. “They’re not going to be discriminated against in a restaurant, or denied an apartment, or prevented from getting the health care that they need just because of who they are.” And in updating those bills, it would also expand the protections for women and people of color — who currently aren’t protected from discrimination in public spaces like retail stores, banks, legal services, or transportation like Uber or train stations.
Perhaps its most sweeping job, however, may be protecting LGBTQ people from predatory legislation on the state level, where some of the most vicious anti-LGBTQ legislation is brewing. Since the “bathroom bills” of 2016, states have continuously attacked trans people — and especially trans youth — with bills restricting their access to health care and athletics, and lifting bans on dangerous practices like “conversion therapy,” all of which contribute to the disproportionate rates of homelessness, depression, and suicide in the LGBTQ community. The Equality Act would render those attacks toothless.
“Federal law provides the floor — so states can provide greater protections, but not less,” says Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign. “It would be akin to what we saw in the 1960s when the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. States that allowed for discrimination were no longer allowed to perpetuate discrimination because federal law prohibited it. So in this case, if the Equality Act passes, those states that have discriminatory statutes on their book — or simply allow discriminatory practices — would not be allowed to have those practices continue.”
Making these changes through Congress — and making it law — would protect the LGBTQ community from the whiplash of the changing whims of future administrations. When the Obama administration instated sweeping protections for LGBTQ people, most of those changes were executive orders and so the Trump administration was able to unilaterally unravel them. “We need legislation passed through Congress so that our rights are enshrined in statute,” says David. “So if a new president comes into office in eight years, or four years or 20 years, that president wouldn’t have the ability to remove or undermine our rights.”
If the bill makes it to the Oval Office, Biden has promised to sign it in his first 100 days in office. But to pass in the Senate, the bill needs yes votes from all 50 Democrats and 10 Republicans — a hefty ask when it only swayed three Republican votes in the House. Last month, Sen. Mitt Romney — who has previously supported LGBTQ non-discrimination efforts — announced that he would not support the bill, due to the lack of “religious liberty protections,” derailing any plans to leverage his support, and leaving advocates without a clear path forward in the Republican Party. But advocates are putting stock in the power of the voters — 8 in 10 of which support civil rights for LGBTQ people.
“The most common misconception is that we’re already protected under federal law,” says David. “It’s a superpower and it’s our Achilles heel,” says Johnson. “We have to educate people that discrimination against LGBTQ people is still legal in this country. But the superpower is that there’s overwhelming support already.”
It’s an uphill battle to Biden’s desk, but advocates maintain there has never had a better chance of passage. “The movement has evolved so much. And we’ve got brilliant minds, across so many different movements and communities. This is the group of people that’s gonna make it happen,” says Johnson. “It’s a fork in the road: Are all LGBTQ people gonna be treated fairly across all areas of life or not?”