A new year is upon us, bringing both promise and challenges in the fight for LGBT rights. The good news is that we’re entering 2016 with some incredible gains, including the right to marry across all 50 states. Young LGBT people coming of age today will be able to imagine a more just and equal future than anyone before them.
Our first big objective for 2016 is to secure more protections for LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and schools. While federal laws banning sex discrimination in most of these contexts should be interpreted to cover LGBT people as well, not all courts agree yet, and we don’t have express LGBT protections at the federal level or in 31 states. So we are working to generate support in Congress for the Equality Act, which would add those express LGBT protections as well as new civil rights protections addressing discrimination based on sex, race, color, and national origin. We are also working with partners in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, and Florida to pass state-level nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.
As tends to be the case when a minority group makes progress, the efforts to thwart those gains intensify as well. Opponents of LGBT equality seek to undermine our civil rights protections by passing bills like so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which would excuse discrimination in the name of religion. Last year this fight played out in many states, most prominently in Indiana. Thankfully, Indiana rejected that law, with big business and the majority of the American public siding firmly with equality and Gov. Mike Pence’s approval ratings plummeting because he championed the discriminatory measure. Where that fire was extinguished, however, more have ignited. There are now several bills in Indiana that threaten to harm LGBT people, including one that would once again allow discrimination in the name of religion. The good news is that our arsenal is stronger than ever. A business coalition has formed in Indiana to beat back the bad bills and help promote an affirmative nondiscrimination law that would secure protections for LGBT Hoosiers once and for all.
We’re seeing the same pattern play out as other legislative sessions kick off around the country, including in Georgia and Florida, where again religion is being held up as a reason to deny LGBT people the same rights as everyone else. Georgia has picked up a version of a terrible federal bill, the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, or as we more accurately call it, the Fighting to Allow Discrimination Act, which failed to get a vote in Congress in D.C. this past summer. Georgia’s version would authorize government workers to decide not to provide services to members of the public if doing so would violate the workers’ individual religious beliefs. For example, an adoption agency could refuse to place a child with a same-sex couple and still receive government funds. And a public official could refuse to issue marriage licenses or property deeds or death certificates to same-sex couples. Florida is another state trying to gain support for an exemptions bill that would license discrimination. This Florida bill is strikingly broad and, if passed, would open up the possibility of discrimination so far and wide that it takes the grand prize for legal discrimination against the most people imaginable in the most instances possible. A hospice could reject someone on moral or religious grounds. A doctor or hospital could turn someone away because they’re gay or transgender, an unwed mother, a person of color. We’re gearing up to extinguish this terrible bill and any pieces of it that might get broken off and latched on to other legislation.
Last fall Houston voters repealed a civil rights law that had protected more than a dozen classes of people, including LGBT people, because the opposition peddled lies that stoked trans bathroom panic. The Houston loss highlights a real challenge for our movement, and we’re seeing a striking increase in proposed bills that specifically target transgender people. For instance, a bill in Indiana would impose criminal penalties on anyone who doesn’t use the restroom according to the sex they were assigned at birth. And states like South Dakota and Virginia are proposing similar measures that would force students to use bathrooms that correspond with their genitalia. We need not only to fight these regressive bills, but to continue to educate America about who transgender people are and about the real challenges they face in their everyday lives. Humanizing transgender people will help the country reject these terrible bills.
While we can’t be sure of how many favorable laws or bad laws might pass, the good news is that the LGBT movement has more support behind us now than ever before. The majority of the American public believes that no one should be fired from their job, kicked out of their home, or turned away from a service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The majority of our country believes a public official or a public-serving business should not be allowed to disregard the law and turn someone away because of who they are. Big business coalitions have formed in places like Indiana and Georgia to assert that equality is good for business. And advocates are working not only to prevent attacks on LGBT individuals but to push good bills forward that advance equality.
We must remember that the battles we will face this year are not just about religion or transgender people; they’re the other side’s plans B and C for stopping LGBT equality because their original plan A (preventing any civil rights for LGBT people) has failed. The opposition cannot simply say they don’t want LGBT people to have the same rights as everyone else, because most people would no longer agree with that. So they talk about religion and exploit transphobia. But the voices against us are increasingly marginalized and those with us grow stronger in number and power. We must keep that in mind as we weather defeats that will come our way, arming ourselves with the knowledge that while we might lose some battles, we’re winning the war.