As we barrel toward a Supreme Court decision on federal marriage equality, it’s important to remember that this historic moment is simply the tip of the iceberg in terms of what LGBTQ individuals need. Full LGBTQ legal equality is urgent: it’s not something that can wait for a politically convenient moment or for 90 percent of Americans to agree on its necessity. LGBTQ folks need protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and protections from police brutality, detention and deportation, and inadequate health care systems.
Because of grassroots activists and organizers who have been coming out, exerting pressure, and insisting on the rights of all LGBTQ people for decades, we are now on the brink of seeing a widely-constructed LGBTQ equality bill introduced in Congress. Unfortunately, that bill will not be as broad as it needs to be.
Back in December, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced that he would be introducing a bill in the new Congressional session designed to bring LGBTQ individuals closer to full equality under the law. However, recent conversations with Senator Merkley's staff have revealed that the pathway forward for this bill includes amending existing civil rights laws — a prospect that's scary for LGBTQ people and anyone who believes in our current civil rights protections.
While this strategy would allow LGBTQ people to avail themselves of existing litigation and judicial interpretations of these laws, the potential downside is not just substantial — it’s dangerous. Imagine the following scenario: Senator Merkley introduces a bill in the Senate with a companion bill in the House that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing lists of protected classes in areas such as housing and employment. On the surface, this is a good thing. However, there is a very real possibility that amendments will be introduced on the Senate floor by the likes of Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton or a whole host of other right-wing lawmakers that not only strip the bill of its intended protections, but also gut the civil rights laws being amended.
Of course, there is a very simple fix for that problem — create a “bright line” agreement that, should these poison pill amendments be attached to the bill’s final version, the bill would be pulled from the floor. But that’s not the end of the doomsday scenario.
Even if this agreement is in place and the bill is pulled from the floor, there is no way to ensure that the homophobic, transphobic, racist imaginations of sitting senators won’t be firing on all cylinders — so much so that they might then introduce and pass these efforts to gut existing civil rights protections through both chambers of Congress.
Our plea to Senator Merkley is to reconsider this path — to introduce a stand-alone bill that we can all be proud of, that doesn't raise unnecessary risks, and addresses all of the rights LGBTQ people need. As marriage equality comes closer to reality, and the movement looks to next steps in the fight for LGBTQ rights, LGBTQ folks deserve to see the U.S. Senate move a bill forward that we can all support — not one that will unnecessarily divide our community.
HEATHER CRONK and ANGELA PEOPLES are co-directors of GetEQUAL.