Written by Celia Bergin
The House of Representatives passing the Equality Act in February marks a notable shift in protection of LGBTQIA+ Americans. Previously reliant upon legal rulings and the goodwill of state legislatures, nationwide protection if the bill passes will represent an incredible shift from Congress in terms of protecting gender and sexual minority people in the US. However, Republican Senators and the filibuster stand in its path of passing through both chambers of Congress.
The new piece of legislation passed is less of a new law but more an addition to previous anti-discrimination legislation. If passed, the Equality Act will see an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The initial law is known for protecting those in the US against discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or nationality. Under this new amendment, sexual orientation and gender identity will also become protected and it will be illegal to discriminate against a person based on these parts of their identity.
However, the Senate filibuster is going to be a significant barrier to getting this amendment passed. Despite three Republicans crossing the floor to vote for the Equality Act in the House of Representatives, getting 10 Senators to cross in the upper chamber will be a monumental challenge. Democrats, in theory, control the Senate with a 50:50 split of the house and Vice President Harris having the deciding vote. But if 41 Senators oppose the bill then they can continue to delay a vote on it via the filibuster and sink the bill. It is likely that more than 41 Republicans will oppose the bill, citing an infringement on religious beliefs and rights as their justification for doing so.
Almost 60 years ago, the GOP didn’t want to pass the initial 1964 Act. It is almost certain they will try to oppose any amendment to it. The party’s pervasive social conservatism has resulted in targeting the LGBTQIA+ community throughout history. The party can be seen to have increased its attacks on the queer community since the legalisation of gay marriage across the US by the Supreme Court in 2015. With the ruling one that the GOP did not want, and did not expect with a conservative-leaning court, they have now turned to attack LGBTQIA+ people in other areas of life.
Back in 2020, the GOP had introduced an estimated 200 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills, including increased targeting of the transgender community via bathroom bans and expulsion of transgender military personal. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the right to healthcare has been gradually eroded too. There are some examples of the Republican Party having LGBTQ such as the Log Cabin Republicans. But as a party stance, the GOP does not want LGBTQIA+ people to have equal rights to their straight counterparts and will work to stop federal law protecting those from a gender or sexual minority group.
The Republicans have a history of blocking any form of challenge to conservative religious ideas. Viewing their right to freely practice their religion as trumping the rights of others to self-expression and safety, they fundamentally forget that church and state are supposed to be kept separate in the US. Their constant commitment to one distinct reading of the Bible, one that is anti-LGBTQIA+, has led to the rights of queer Americans being used as one of the few areas that Republicans can continually attack.
If the bill isn’t passed, LGBTQIA+ people in the US will remain open to discrimination in every area of their life apart from marriage. From healthcare to sport, education and beyond, discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or gender will be legal in some states. While some states do have sexuality and gender identity included in their anti-discrimination laws, anti-LGBTQIA+ laws will continue to be proposed and passed across the US. Unwarranted hatred and oppression of LGBTQIA+ people will be able to continue.
This bill is highly significant for the LGBTQIA+ community. It could be the first time that Representatives have helped to secure their rights instead of a lengthy process of waiting for a Supreme Court ruling. But it could also be about to be used in a political power play in regard to the filibuster, which could have much wider ramifications for US politics in its entirety. The Democrats look increasingly set to try and alter the rule in response to continued stubbornness from the GOP as they fail to play their part in Joe Biden’s era of bipartisanship, in which he wants to establish political cooperation and an end to hostility in Congress.
Seeing how the bill does or does not pass in Congress will be interesting. Firstly, to see if the American religious right will be able to be a barrier to equality despite Democrats control of Congress. But secondly, we will have to see whether traditional values ironically lead to the end of a long-contested tradition in US politics.
Photo source - Unspash (Margaux Bellott)