Op-ed: 10 Drastic Changes to Help HIV-Positive and LGBT Citizens

By Ian Thompson

Originally published on Advocate.com July 25 2013 5:00 AM ET

Considering the seemingly unending partisan gridlock in Washington, you’d be forgiven for sighing and rolling your eyes at the mere mention of Congress. But the reality is that, particularly related to matters of fairness and equality, progress often takes years and even decades to materialize. Patience and just the right amount of optimism are key ingredients to keeping your eyes on the prize without also banging your head against the wall in frustration.

There is much reason for optimism on the LGBT rights front. From historic Supreme Court decisions to bipartisan support for federal workplace non-discrimination protections, the tide on LGBT rights has, without question, turned. With that in mind, and just the right amount of optimism for the future, here are suggestions for 10 things Congress could do immediately to fundamentally change the national landscape for LGBT people and those living with HIV/AIDS.

1. Pass ENDA. Thirty-three states lack fully LGBT-inclusive workplace non-discrimination laws, leaving many LGBT people vulnerable to workplace discrimination. Congress must pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (with an exemption for religious organizations that does not provide a blank check to discriminate) to address this.

2. Protect the Right to Vote. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act, a law of immense importance to LGBT people. All of the other rights we enjoy as citizens depend on our ability to vote. Congress must rise to the challenge of repairing the damage done by the court so that all Americans can exercise the right to vote.

3. Protect LGBT Students from Discrimination. Amazingly, there still is no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in our nation's public schools, even though they are uniquely vulnerable. Congress must pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act to ensure that LGBT students are able to benefit equally from a public education that is free of discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

4. Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform. There are an estimated 267,000 LGBT adult undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows. A roadmap to citizenship would dramatically improve life for them and their families. Additional aspects of comprehensive immigration reform such as lifting an arbitrary filing deadline for asylum and limiting the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention would especially benefit LGBT immigrants and those living with HIV who are often fleeing persecution and are among the most vulnerable to abuse in immigration enforcement and detention.

5. Prohibit LGBT Housing Discrimination. The consequences of housing discrimination on LGBT people, their partners, spouses, and children are stark. Not only do LGBT people have fewer housing options, and often a longer search for a rental or new home, but they also have higher housing costs resulting from fewer units to choose among and discriminatory terms in housing finance. Congress must pass the Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act, which would prohibit discrimination in housing and access to credit, including mortgages and home improvement loans, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

6. Help Modernize Discriminatory HIV/AIDS Laws. There are 32 states that have criminal laws that impose harsh sentences for exposing another person to HIV, even in the absence of actual HIV transmission, or even a meaningful risk that transmission could occur. Many of these laws are relics of the early days of the epidemic. The REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act would provide states with incentives and support to reform outdated criminal laws that target people living with HIV.

7. Finish the Job – Fully Repeal DOMA. The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in U.S. v. Windsor struck down the core of DOMA’s senseless and cruel discrimination against same-sex couples and their families. The Respect for Marriage Act would repeal DOMA in its entirety from the books, and, more importantly, ensure married same-sex couples that their marriages will be recognized and respected by the federal government regardless of where in the country they reside.

8. Prohibit Racial Profiling. Racial profiling has a disproportionately negative impact on LGBT people of color, particularly transgender women, who are profiled as sex workers. From the police raids and harassment that provided the spark for the modern LGBT rights movement at the Stonewall Inn to modern day unlawful sting operations, the harms of profiling individuals based on who they are (or are perceived to be) is clear to the LGBT community. Congress must pass the End Racial Profiling Act to prohibit any local, state, or federal law enforcement agency or officer from engaging in the ineffective and un-American practice of racial profiling.

9. Protect the Intimate Relationships of Gay and Lesbian Servicemembers. Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice labels the intimate relationships of lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers, including those who are married, as a violation of military criminal law alongside a prohibition on bestiality. This is profoundly discriminatory and stigmatizing. Congress must act to move military criminal law in line with both Supreme Court and military court precedent recognizing constitutional guarantees of liberty and privacy.

10. End the HIV Organ Donor Research Ban. More than 100,000 patients are awaiting potentially life-saving organs. There is currently a federal ban on donation of organs from HIV-positive donors to recipients living with HIV. It has been estimated that allowing such transplants between HIV-positive patients could increase the organ donation pool by 500-600 donors per year. The HIV Organ Policy Equity (HOPE) Act would end the outdated ban on federal research into organ transplants between HIV-positive patients, and provide a pathway to the eventual transplantation of these organs.

IAN THOMPSON is a legislative representative on issues related to LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS in the ACLU's Washington legislative office and can be reached on Twitter @iantDC.