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Identity

Opinion: The U.S. Is About to Decide if LGBTQ People Truly Count as Citizens

In an exclusive op-ed, Congressman Joe Kennedy III explains why LGBTQ Americans need the Equality Act to pass.

by Joseph Kennedy III
May 16 2019, 4:51pm

Gender Spectrum Collection

Update 5/17/19: The House of Representatives passed the Equality Act in a 236-173 vote. Advocates are now urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

Joseph Kennedy III is the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district and the chairman of the Congressional Trans Equality Task Force.

The first time I walked in the Boston Pride Parade was early in my first campaign for Congress. It was an amazing experience, made unforgettable because I marched with my predecessor and LBGTQ icon, Barney Frank. Every few paces we walked, spectators would jump over barriers to shake Congressman Frank’s hand and offer a few quick words of gratitude: “Congressman, thank you. You changed my life.” That day, I received an extraordinary message from a man leaving elected office after decades of service to me, someone hoping to begin his own: In the eyes of our government, everyone should count.

A few months later, my phone rang. My college roommate, NBA center Jason Collins, was calling to tell me that in a few days he would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the first openly gay, active, male, professional athlete. He wanted to march with me and Congressman Frank in the next Pride parade. So, in June 2013, a retired, gay, Jewish Member of Congress, a seven-foot-tall, Black NBA star, and a redheaded, straight, Catholic politician walked onto Boylston Street to march with thousands of people in a scene our forefathers couldn’t have possibly imagined.

The founding documents of the United States of America include the words “All men are created equal,” and the threshold above the doors of the highest court in our country is engraved with the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” But this country’s enduring failure is that those words have only been guaranteed to straight, rich, white, Protestant men for the majority of our history.

Discrimination against LGBTQ people is still legal in 30 states. But this week, the House of Representatives will debate and vote on legislation that would end such legal discrimination. Because of the activists and advocates of the civil rights movement, discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, sex, and national origin was deemed illegal in the U.S. in the 1960s. By amending the Civil Rights Act to extend its protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, the Equality Act promises freedom from discrimination to LGBTQ people in the contexts of housing, credit, public accommodations, education, federal financial assistance, and jury duty.

Critics argue that these protections are unnecessary and overreaching. Statistics tell a different story. Over 40 percent of LGBT youth say they live in communities that don’t accept them for who they are. A quarter of American LGBT workers say they have experienced employment discrimination in the last five years. A similar number of transgender men and women say they were fired, not hired, or denied a promotion due to their gender identity. Gay Americans are nearly 75 percent more likely to be denied a mortgage than their straight neighbors.

Stories bear those statistics out. Aimee Stephens, for instance, was fired from her job at a funeral home last year because she is transgender and bravely chose to live true and free. Also last year, a 9-year-old in Denver killed himself after he was relentlessly bullied for being gay. And recently, parents of transgender children came to Washington to tell me about the extraordinary measures they have taken to protect their kids from state-funded discrimination— including uprooting their families to move to states with public accommodation laws and charting road trips to avoid states without them.

If passed, the Equality Act would ensure that no Americans could be fired because of the hand they held on the way down the aisle; no transgender American tenants could be evicted from their home because of their identity; no LGBTQ Americans could be denied service at a bakery because the owner feels uncomfortable about the names written on the cake; and no transgender Americans could be dismissed as jurors because an attorney or prosecutor believes their gender identity renders them biased.

In a country still grappling with its original sin of slavery and the systematic silencing of women, under an Administration that still actively imposes a Muslim ban, we know that the Equality Act by itself will not fulfill the promise of lived and legal equality. But we find urgency in the LGBTQ Americans who have been asked to be patient for too long. Because every single day that we fail to live up to the ideals and values that define this American experiment is a day that we know we must be better.

There is joy in walking through the streets of Boston every year in early June. To my left and right are people who live in a country that has routinely deemed them unworthy of protection. Yet everywhere I look, people celebrate two defining truths: of the equality that persists despite the broken promises of our government and a recognition that one day we will make good on those promises. By passing the Equality Act, we would move one step closer.