The House of Representatives passed a sweeping nondiscrimination bill on Friday that would enhance protections for LGBTQ Americans, in a 236-173 vote. The vote was mostly along party lines, and all the no votes were from Republicans.
The bill, named The Equality Act, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, employment, education, federal programs, jury service, public accommodations, and credit and lending. This bill also includes protections against discrimination in public spaces and services like retail stores, transportation services, banks, and legal services.
Seven Democratic representatives did not vote on the bill, and eight Republicans voted for it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has said that this legislation was a top priority for this session’s legislative agenda. Before the vote, Pelosi thanked advocates, activists, and outside groups advocating for LGBTQ rights. Pelosi said that she has heard people say it’s easy for her to support the Equality Act because San Francisco, which she represents, is “tolerant.”
“I say tolerant that is a condescending word. This is not about tolerance. This is about respect of the LGBTQ community. This is about taking pride,” Pelosi said.
Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination and gender identity in employment and housing. Only 20 states and D.C. explicitly prohibit discrimination in public accommodations. Fourteen states have non-discrimination laws that cover credit discrimination, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Friday morning, “Today’s vote marks a triumph for transgender people nationwide. Trans people have been denied our freedom for generations, trapped by ignorance, fear, and violence that too often mark our lives.”
There are many documented stories of trans and queer people reportedly being denied housing and employment because they are in the LGBTQ community. Two women in Colorado, one of whom is transgender, said they were denied housing in 2015 due to discrimination. In 2013, a trans woman was denied access to a grocery store bathroom. In 2010, a gay man said he was fired from his job as a skydiver due to discrimination.
Republican representatives have opposed the legislation with some bizarre arguments.
In April, Republican House members compared requiring doctors to treat LGBTQ people to asking an Orthodox Jewish doctor whose grandparent was killed in the Holocaust to treat a Nazi patient. During that hearing, Republicans argued that nondiscrimination protections for transgender women would only help cisgender men who wished to lie about their gender. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) echoed those concerns and implied that Democrats would not support the legislation if President Donald Trump were a transgender woman.
Republicans have also claimed that cis women’s equality and safety is undermined by the legislation. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) said in April that the legislation would “prioritize the rights of biological males over that of biological women.”
Republican lawmakers made many of those same arguments on Friday morning. Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-MO) said the bill should be renamed the Inequality Act “as its policies at the state level have already been used to eliminate safe spaces for women, irreparably harm children, trample parental rights, undermine the free exercise of religion, and dismantle free athletics.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) referred to transgender people as “people who are gender confused” and said that cis women who are survivors of sexual assault would be traumatized by transgender women’s presence in bathrooms.
“So we’re going to take like 25% of all women who suffer sexual assault … that they are retraumatized and retriggered by being in a confined space like a dressing room or restroom and having a biological man coming into into their area … We are going to say we don’t want to hurt their feelings so you have to get over your trauma,” he said.
But transgender people are often the ones subjected to dangerous and traumatic experiences in restrooms. A 2013 Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law survey found that 70% of transgender responders had been denied entrance, harassed, or assaulted when trying to use a public bathroom corresponding with their gender.
In 2018, Gohmert insulted male sexual abuse victims by calling them “wannabes” and claiming they could have stopped abuse.
Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) responded to some of the comments Republicans made on the floor and said “scare tactics” have “no place on the floor of the people’s House.”
“You, my colleagues, are on the wrong side of history,” she said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) rejected Republican arguments that the Equality Act would hurt religious liberty.
Lee said, “Religious liberty is not dead but it is alive. This bill focuses on saving lives. It focuses on understanding what it means to be transgender and denied the right to serve in the United States military or it stands up for African American transgender women who have been killed in the South, in the region that I live in. And it stands up for the person who knocked on the door and could not get housing because of their status. So I’d ask my friends who are Mormon, Seventh-day Adventists, who are Catholic, Jewish, Muslims and other religions, how would you feel if you knocked on a door and you could not get in?”
This legislation was first introduced in 2015 but was blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress. The bill faces a tough climate in the U.S. Senate, which is under Republican control and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) does not have a long history of supporting LGBTQ rights. The Senate Republican leadership has said there is “no scheduling” for the Equality Act. Trump also opposes the bill due to “poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights,” a senior administration official told the Washington Blade.
This piece was updated with lawmakers’ arguments for and against the Equality Act on Friday.