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On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony about the Equality Act, a landmark piece of legislation that seeks to prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in various aspects of life.
Yet for all the controversy over the Equality Act — including wild-eyed claims from the Religious Right in the weeks leading up to the hearing — the biggest takeaway was that Democrats and Republicans appeared to be talking about two entirely different bills throughout the mostly tame hearing.
Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) laid out Democrats’ vision of the act in his opening remarks, casting the advancement of LGBTQ rights as a natural extension of the country’s long journey to achieving equality for all Americans.
Durbin and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee called on their witnesses — Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David; United Church of Christ Minister Dr. Edith Guffey, the mother of a nonbinary child; and 16-year-old Stella Keating, a transgender teen and founder of the GenderCool Project, which highlights the stories of transgender youth who are thriving — to argue of the necessity of protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in various areas of life, including but not limited to, employment, housing, and access to public accommodations and government services.
“Too many members of the LGBTQ community live with the real costs of inequality; from denial of basic services to fighting for sheer survival,” David said in his testimony. “Despite the progress we have made, discrimination against LGBTQ people is alive and well in our country, particularly for LGBTQ people who hold multiple marginalized identities. More than one in three LGBTQ Americans faced discrimination 2020, including more than three in five transgender Americans.”
David also noted that, due to the lack of a single federal nondiscrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQ people now face a patchwork of often-conflicting laws that dole out various degrees of legal protection from discrimination, making a person’s ability to thrive dependent on their zip code.
When questioned by Durbin about assertions made by one of the Republican witnesses that LGBTQ Americans are living today with less fear and stigma than ever before, David largely pushed back against it.
“Two-thirds of LGBTQ people in this country report experiencing discrimination. Last year alone, we have 40 or transgender women who were killed in this country — more than any other year in recorded history. So I appreciate the contention that LGBTQ people are now living free, free from fear of discrimination and violence. But that does not reflect the facts,” he said.
“As we talk about the Equality Act, we have to make sure that our policies are driven by facts, not by fear,” David continued. “And unfortunately, a lot of the information that we’ve seen advanced is misinformation about the Equality Act. The Equality Act does not in any way undermine the rights of others. It simply provides legal protections to LGBTQ people.”
David noted that in 29 states, LGBTQ people face discrimination. “That means I could face discrimination getting into a taxi or into a car service. I could face discrimination going into a retail store. I could face discrimination serving on a jury. That’s real and that is happening every single day to LGBTQ people. That is why we are asking to pass the Equality Act so that we are treated in the same way as everyone else,” he said.
Keating, a Washington State resident making history as the first transgender youth to testify before the U.S. Senate, introduced herself to senators — and ordinary Americans watching the hearing — as a normal teenager with the same concerns as other people her age, even mentioning the excitement of having just obtained a driver’s license.
“I am here before you today, representing the hundreds of thousands of kids just like me who are supported and loved by their family, friends and communities across the country,” she said. “Right now, I live in a state where I have equal protection under the law. And as a high-school sophomore, I’m starting to look at colleges. And all I can think about is this: less than half of the states in our country provide equal protection for me under the law. What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me?
“Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states…. What if I’m offered a dream job in a state where I can be discriminated against? Even if my employer is supportive, I still have to live somewhere. Eat in restaurants. Have a doctor,” she added. “This is the United States of America. The country that I love. Every young person…regardless of who they are or who they love, should be able to be excited about their future.”
Keating added: “We are the next generation of small business owners. Software engineers. Scientists. Teachers. Nurses…. Presidents. And for my generation to achieve all that we will, we just need to be able to live our lives.”
Asked by Durbin about transgender participation in athletics, Keating admitted she was not “a very sporty person,” but said she had originally planned to join the girls’ bowling team at her high school prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to hang out with her friends, and said that other transgender athletes are often simply seeking to fit in and share fun, memorable experiences with their friends and peers.
Andy Marra, the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, praised Keating’s testimony, saying it was “heartening” to know that senators would hear from a young trans person about how their vote on the Equality Act would directly affect her life. Marra noted the timing of the hearing, which comes at a moment when legislators in more than two dozen states are seeking to pre-empt some protections that would be provided by the Equality Act, passing bills to deny gender-affirming care to trans youth or ban them from participating in sports based on their gender identity.
“The Equality Act is designed to once and for all codify basic protections for transgender people nationwide,” said Marra. “Today, Americans in 29 states are lacking either explicit, comprehensive nondiscrimination protections. The Equality Act makes crystal clear that LGBTQ people are worthy of protection.”
Meanwhile, most Republicans on the committee, starting with remarks from Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), cast the Equality Act as a dangerous bill that prioritized certain Americans over others, with many Republicans repeating two key arguments against the bill: that protections for transgender individuals would eliminate single-sex spaces and specifically disadvantage cisgender females, particularly in the area of athletics; and that the bill, as written, doesn’t contain enough protections for individuals or businesses that find homosexuality, transgenderism, or same-sex marriage objectionable.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) claimed that if the Equality Act passes, government bureaucrats will begin shutting down charities and social services programs provided by churches or religious groups on the grounds that their religious beliefs prevent them from providing services to LGBTQ people.
“Forty percent of the top 50 charities in the United States are faith-based, and religious institutions provide more than one trillion dollars and societal benefit every year. If this bill passes, a bureaucrat in Washington, however, may show up at their doorstep one day, or an official-looking letter may arrive in the mail, and the bureaucrat will ask whether the charity operates according to beliefs about gender identity that were totally and completely novel until just yesterday,” Cotton asserted.
“And when they become mandatory, even though they remain deeply unpopular with the American people, and if the citizens refuse, whether out of faith or common sense or both, they will be punished. Their religious schools will be cut off from federal aid. Their battered women’s shelters will be sued for supposedly discrimination, for refusing to admit men,” he continued. “Millions of Americans will be treated as second class citizens and threatened with lawsuits simply for believing that men are men and women are women. That is the heart of this so-called Equality Act. Most Americans believe this is wrongheaded, even if they are too scared to say it, for fear of being kicked off social media or losing their job or losing their spot in school. But I am not scared to say it, and I will say it for them.”
The two chief witnesses for the Republican side were Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, who has railed against the alleged proliferation of “gender ideology”; and Abigail Shrier, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal who has claimed to have been “canceled” due to her remarks disparaging the transgender community, including her claims that affirming transgender children’s gender identity or allowing them to medically transition are harmful, or her casting transgender inclusion in sports as a threat to cisgender girls and women.
In response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Hasson claimed that the bill’s expansion of the definition of what constitutes a public accommodation could potentially threaten religious organizations that open up their physical spaces, or spaces owned by them, to the larger public, or accept federal funds for social service work.
Hasson said provisions in the bill that prevent people or organizations from using the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a justification for certain types of discrimination would prevent people and religious organizations from “living out their faith.” And she said that those who argue otherwise are being “deceptive.”
“Sure, it doesn’t change what we believe,” she said. “But to be a person of faith is to live that out, to carry it out in action, to be able to — if you believe there should be separation of the sexes, for example, in Judaism or in some aspects of Islam — function like that in all the activities you’re doing.”
But Democrats sought to counter Hasson’s claims that the Equality Act is hostile to religion by highlighting the testimony of Guffey, the minister and mother of a nonbinary child, who pointed to her faith as a reason she supports the Equality Act.
Noting that people of different religious beliefs will approach the Equality Act from different places, Guffey explained how religion and faith had been used in the past to justify slavery, discrimination, or prohibitions on interracial marriage — remarks later echoed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) during his questioning of witnesses.
“Maybe this seems so simple to me, because I consider the merits of the Equality Act as an African-American woman who knows all too well the impact and legacy of racial discrimination,” Guffey said. “No one should be denied rights and services because of who they are or who they love or any kind of discrimination is inconsistent with the God of love.
“I know and trust many denominations, including my own United Church of Christ, already welcome LGBTQ persons fully into our faith communities and value their leadership as gifted and cherished children of God,” she continued. “We fully support the Equality Act…. As a person of faith, faith is always very personal. What I believe matters. It matters that I believe that God is love. It matters that I believe in the biblical verse, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ … The Equality Act is a way for this country to make that tenet of my faith, known as the biblical Golden Rule, the law of the land.”
The committee also heard from a number of lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, who expressed their own support for or reservations about the Equality Act, including Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), the mother of a transgender daughter, who spoke of the difficulties people like her daughter may face due to a lack of federal protections.
Following the hearing, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement praising the Democratic witnesses for showing “exactly why the Equality Act is desperately needed.”
“For far too long, LGBTQ people have been denied the same civil rights protections enjoyed by their fellow Americans,” HRC spokesperson Wyatt Ronan said in a statement, citing a recent poll by Hart Research finding that 70% of Americans support the Equality Act after being read a description of some of the bill’s provisions.
“Americans are united in the idea that LGBTQ people deserve protections, and that the Equality Act is not legislation whose time has come, but rather legislation whose time is well past due,” Ronan said.
But Ronan also criticized Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, save Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — who said he wanted to find a compromise to protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination while also protecting people of faith — for their line of questioning and regurgitation of talking points about the bill posing threats to women and religious organizations.
“All but one of Republican Judiciary Committee members openly spread disinformation about what the Equality Act actually does — outright lying about applicable religious exemptions and applications to women’s programs including sports,” Ronan said. “Instead, they chose to spew talking points from anti-LGBTQ hate groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom. We had hoped for a healthy exchange and a genuine well-intentioned conversation about the legislation and its implications. Instead, these committee members spewed language that undoubtedly harmed the mental health of transgender children: misgendering them, openly and unabashedly discussing their genitalia, arguing they do not exist, and asserting they are not equal to their fellow citizens.”
LGBTQ advocates had noted, prior to the hearing, that while Republicans would seek to use the protection of women as a justification for opposing the Equality Act, yet claimed the GOP senators’ records fell short when it came to living up to their professed support of equality for women.
For instance, HRC and GLAAD noted, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Grassley, and Lee voted against the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. Cotton and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who also testified against the Equality Act during Wednesday’s hearing, voted against the bill in the House.
Advocates pointed out that no Republican senators have co-sponsored or expressed support for the Senate Athletics Fair Pay Act, which deals with equal compensation for women’s professional athletes. Advocates also noted that several Judiciary Committee members had voted, either in the House or the Senate against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2013 and the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2014, which were bills seeking to address wage and salary disparities between men and women in the workplace.
LGBTQ organizations also poked holes in the qualifications of Hasson and Shrier to testify, arguing that both had long records of demonstrating hostility to transgender youth in particular, pointing to a Newsweek article in which Hasson claimed the Equality Act would mean Americans would “no longer be able to say out loud that a person is male or female.”
They also pointed to past comments by Shrier alleging that there is an “epidemic” of teen girls who have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria who are being coerced by peer pressure into claiming to be transgender, and statements she made comparing being transgender to having an eating disorder or practicing self-harm.
GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis issued a statement in which she eviscerated Shrier’s testimony while praising the Democratic witnesses.
“Today we heard from those who represent the overwhelming majority of Americans in supporting protections for all LGBTQ people, no matter where they live. We heard from a brave transgender teenager, whose rights to medical care and to play sports with her friends are threatened in dozens of states. We heard from a faith leader, who is also a parent of a nonbinary child, who supports the Equality Act’s protections for LGBTQ people, for people of color, and for women,” Ellis said.
“Unfortunately, we also heard from witnesses whose only expertise is in spreading misinformation about transgender people,” she continued. “Abigail Shrier is not a doctor or an expert on transgender people, gender identity, or medical care, but she exploited the Senate hearing to continue her work to spread inaccurate ideas about trans people. Claims that the Equality Act, and trans people, threaten women and girls in any way, are demonstrably false. Shrier should listen to transgender youth, who simply want to be seen and recognized as they are.”
Other LGBTQ organizations doubled down on their calls for lawmakers to pass the Equality Act. Michael Adams, the CEO of SAGE, an organization advocating for LGBTQ elders, called the act “vital” to prohibiting mistreatment and discrimination against elderly individuals.
“LGBT+ people, especially our elders, should be treated fairly across all areas of life,” he said in a statement. “They should be able to seek the services they need without fear of receiving inadequate care or being turned away.”
Noting that more than 350 major corporations, as well as 60 business associations, have publicly backed the Equality Act, Erin Uritus, the CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, urged passage of the bill.
“Every day that goes by without the Equality Act means another day when LGBTQ people can face discrimination in virtually every sphere of daily life,” Uritus said in a statement. “No civil rights bill has ever enjoyed this level of support from the business community. America’s business leaders know that the status quo is morally unacceptable. They know that discrimination is bad for business. They are losing patience with the political leaders who stand in the way of progress.”
David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, noted that the Equality Act offers additional protections to groups beyond the LGBTQ community, because it expands the definition of public accommodations and prohibits race-based discrimination in those venues, contains legal protections protecting women against pregnancy or health care-based discrimination, and protections for a host of other marginalized groups currently not covered by federal nondiscrimination laws.
“The Equality Act is a bill for us all: It is designed to ensure that everyone in this country is treated with respect, dignity, and equality, regardless of who we are or how we show up in the world,” Johns said in a statement.
Kierra Johnson, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, who submitted her own testimony in favor of the Equality Act, praised the witnesses for raising up the stories of LGBTQ people and their experiences, which highlight the need for sweeping federal nondiscrimination legislation.
“We [at the Task Force] advocate on behalf of people who are incredibly diverse, people living at the intersections of multiple identities and are often at the margins; students and other young activists; people who are Black, Indigenous and of color; and many who are transgender and gender nonbinary people,” Johnson said in a statement. “Each of us has unique talents and gifts and are deserving of health, safety, love and dignity. Our ability to be a great country is made possible when we create the conditions for everyone to thrive.”
She also countered the two major arguments repeated ad nauseam during the hearing about alleged “concerns” or “problems” with the Equality Act, saying: “I believe in God and respect faith traditions, and I know that the Equality Act and religious freedom are compatible. I played women’s sports, and I support women’s sports and equal opportunity for women and girls. Existing approaches to the participation of transgender girls and women already exist and work just fine, no change is needed. The Equality Act does not propose to change that.”
Johnson then turned her fire on the opponents of LGBTQ equality.
“Those opposed to the Equality Act, including both elected officials and supposed ‘experts,’ tried to undermine the bill by engaging in double-speak, displaying their own bias against LGBTQ people. One of their favorite tactics was offering outlandish exaggerations of ‘the sky is falling’ type to sow division and fear. LGBTQ people and our allies have seen this kind of thing before. Opponents of equality for LGBTQ people like to take shameful verbal aim at our community’s precious children. Here they also tried to demonize transgender women, when all evidence shows that it is transgender women who face an epidemic of violence aimed at them by those who hate.
“The gift of this moment is to look deep inside of our collective selves and ask, ‘What are as the limits of Love and Justice?’ We believe they are unlimited. We need to do the work to prove it.”
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