Beyond Marriage: Inside The Future Of LGBT Advocacy

Despite the rapid advance of marriage equality, LGBT people can still be fired for their identities in most states. CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS
Despite the rapid advance of marriage equality, LGBT people can still be fired for their identities in most states. CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS

For more than 20 years, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) bounced around Congress, becoming watered down with religious exemptions and never passing both the House and Senate during the same session. LGBT people throughout the U.S. can still be fired or not hired just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and ENDA’s likely last iteration died a quiet death last week in the House Rules Committee.

The LGBT movement is not giving up, however. Instead, the focus has actually grown, with advocacy organizations and lawmakers now gearing up for a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill, one that protects LGBT people not only in employment, but in housing, education, credit, and public accommodations as well. Rather than unsuccessfully fighting for one right at a time, the movement is now pressing to make the case for a full LGBT civil rights bill to block all forms of discrimination across the board.

That is the focus of a new report released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), introduced at an event Wednesday morning. The report aggregates available data about various forms of discrimination LGBT people experience across the country, and guests at CAP’s event drove home the point that these injustices can be tolerated no longer, including lawmakers Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), as well as Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has championed ENDA in the Senate as its primary sponsor for the past several years, but he explained Wednesday morning in his keynote address that it’s time to advocate for full LGBT equality. “Isn’t it time to pass a law that broadly ends discrimination across the country?” he asked the audience. Indeed, he committed to introducing such a bill, the “Equality Act of 2015.”

After the event, Merkley explained to ThinkProgress his strategy for advocating for such legislation: “When people understand that discrimination in employment is completely wrong and out of sync with our vision of opportunity and equality… that translates into understanding that discrimination in these other categories is also wrong and out of sync.” He proposed hypothetical questions like, “Do you think it’s right that someone should be able to be kicked out of a movie theatre because of who they are or who they love?” or “Should they not be able to get a home mortgage because of who they are or who they love?” The easy answer to both is, “No.”

Merkley expressed hope about building a coalition of support, but Takano acknowledged the near-future outlook in Congress was pretty bleak. During the event’s panel, he said the “chances are probably zero” of passing such a bill. But Takano was nonetheless adamant about passing an LGBT civil rights bill, emphasizing the need to work closely with allies but recognize the sensitivities association with the language of “civil rights.” “We need to thank and embrace other civil rights movements,” he said, “and acknowledge our debt to them.”

Takano later told ThinkProgress that he also thinks the power of corporate support will make a difference, suggesting the formation of an “anti-ALEC.” When recognizable businesses and corporations show their support for LGBT equality, it adds a heightened “air of legitimacy” to the legislation, he explained. This in turn helps people on the local level better appreciate what’s being advocated for.

Religious exemptions also came up during Wednesday’s event. Merkley explained that rather than the broad exemptions that ENDA eventually included, which would have allowed a lot of anti-LGBT discrimination to continue, the Equality Act will mirror the narrow religious exemptions already present for other categories, like race. CAP’s Sarah McBride, lead author of the report, insisted that in a post-Hobby Lobby world, the LGBT community cannot afford to set a different religious exemption than already exists for other categories. “If we create substandard protections for ourselves,” she told the audience, “it provides the court with ammunition to treat us differently.”

Though the Equality Act will probably not advance while Republicans control Congress, its introduction will set a new standard for the future of LGBT equality. In the meantime, the country is stuck with what Griffin called a “crazy quilt of laws” where many people don’t even know if the law protects LGBT people or not and where discrimination can continue.