GLAAD's Sarah Kate Ellis: How to Stop the LGBT Rights Backslide

Sarah Kate Ellis

After Pride celebrations wind down, my family gets ready to enjoy the annual July 4 celebration in my small town. My wife and I will join our neighbors at the village green, where a replica of the Declaration of Independence is center stage and our kids run around in red, white, and blue blasting horns.

But when my son and daughter gaze up at the fireworks alongside their peers and celebrate living in the land of liberty and justice for all, I always pause knowing that our family is unjustly not equal to the other families surrounding us.

Since taking the helm of GLAAD, I have experienced the extraordinary win of marriage equality and a significant increase in visibility and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. I have also had a front row seat to the constant stream of rollbacks and daily threats that we face as a community.

As I stand shoulder to shoulder with my neighbors on July 4, they remain unaware of the discrimination my family faces. They are unaware that LGBTQ people can be legally fired from their job in 28 states just because of who they love or who they are, or that over the past three years we have had to battle over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills in all 50 states. And in our land of the free, LGBTQ youth can still be forced into conversion therapy in 37 states.

My neighbors don’t see how opponents have weaponized freedom of religion in an effort to allow businesses open to the public to deny services to my family. They don’t feel the daggers to my dignity that come every time a court debates just how free and equal we get to be at a particular point in time.

On this July 4, I can finally see the dawn’s early light.

There is a path forward. But we must start at the beginning.

The only way to correct the baseline and cement LGBTQ legal gains without fear of slipping backwards is for the United States Congress to pass and the states to ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that includes the welfare of all Americans, independent of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

An amendment to the Constitution is the permanent change that ends the rigor of court decisions and removes the formidable possibility that current or future administrations can chip away at LGBTQ progress. 

A previously proposed Equal Rights Amendment focused on gender equality was nearly ratified in the 1970s. The tenets of that legislation are still in need today and should be expanded to include all forms of sex discrimination, including against LGBTQ people. Earlier this year, a pair of federal court decisions affirmed that discrimination against LGBTQ people is, indeed, sex discrimination, with the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit insisting that “sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination.”

The wording of the new amendment would be simple and embody the spirit of America that is found throughout the rest of the document: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

Equal rights. No more, but no less.

Amending the United States Constitution is a long and difficult process, as it should be, and an amendment that protects against sex discrimination and makes LGBTQ Americans equal once and for all will not be a short or easy road, but it is the only road that leads to full and undeniable protection. 

The conversation for this next step in American history has already begun and our country is primed to have the necessary 38 states ratify an amendment after the previous Equal Rights Amendment fell four states short. Justice following the #MeToo revelations is part of the conversation. Landmark decisions in favor of LGBTQ rights are leading that conversation. Outrage over equal pay and the proposed ban on transgender service members are all adding to the momentum. The public relations headache that Amazon, Apple, and any major brand face when they eye a new office in one of the 28 states without LGBTQ protections also spotlights the need for more permanent and sweeping protections. And perhaps most importantly, nearly 80 percent of Americans believe that LGBTQ people deserve equal rights.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in the Masterpiece case, which leaves the door open for businesses to turn away LGBTQ families by citing their religious beliefs, most recently spotlighted exactly why LGBTQ and allied groups need to turn our attention and resources towards taking equality over the constitutional finish line.

No matter how many wins or losses, the rights of LGBTQ Americans will continuously be debated until equality is written into the fabric of this nation. I can indeed see the dawn’s early light, a future July 4 where my family can proudly stand next to our neighbors knowing liberty and justice for truly all is enshrined in the Constitution and is the law of this great land. 

SARAH KATE ELLIS is the president and CEO of GLAAD.

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