Equality Act passes House

The “More Color, More Pride” Flag (photo: Kelly Burkhardt)

After several hours of often contentious debate, the Equality Act passed the House of Representatives on February 25 with a 224-206 vote. Every Democrat voted for the bill, with three GOP members joining.

“It is time to move together to ensure LGBTQ people have the chance to belong, to participate and to succeed in all areas of American life,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, said in a statement after the House vote.

Several Democratic House members spoke about their gay, transgender and non-binary children and grandchildren in their speeches, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL), who said she is the “proud grandmother of a trans grandson.”

The Philadelphia-area Democrats who voted for the bill were Reps. Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans, Madeleine Dean, Mary Gay Scanlon, Chrissy Houlahan, and Susan Wild. Two Pittsburgh-area Democrats, Reps. Conor Lamb and Mike Doyle, also voted for the bill, along with Rep. Matt Cartwright, who represents northeastern Pennsylvania. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who represents Bucks County, was one of the three Republicans who also voted yes.

“I’ve supported LGBTQ rights for decades,” Evans said on Twitter. “I was one of just a few voting for marriage equality in [the] PA House in [the] 1990s. Now in Congress, I’m proud to vote today for the Equality Act!”

Scanlon, who is vice chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said she was “proud to have joined my colleagues in voting to pass the Equality Act to ensure full legal civil rights protections to the LGBTQIA+ community. Discrimination is injustice. It is past time for the Equality Act to become law!”

Dean also joined her Democratic colleagues’ enthusiasm, writing “I just voted to pass the Equality Act because we must live up to our promise of justice and equality for all. If LGBTQ+ people live in fear of discrimination, we have failed as a society. It’s time to punish all discriminatory practices.”

In 2019, eight Republicans voted for the Equality Act when it came before the House. But in 2021, only Fitzpatrick and Reps. John Katko (R-NY) and Tom Reed (R-NY) voted with the Democrats. Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) voted for the bill in 2019, but not in 2021. GOP Reps. Susan Brooks (R-IN), Will Hurd (R-TX) and Greg Walden (R-OR) voted for the bill in 2019, but retired at the end of the last Congress.

“We stand firmly against discrimination in any form. Throughout my tenure in Congress, we have fought to ensure all are treated fairly before the law, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation,” Reed said in a statement.

Reed also noted, “We have been assured by the author of the bill that the fundamental rights of the American people, such as religious freedoms, have been protected in the legislation as written. We will continue to support these efforts to ensure unlawful persecution or discrimination is prevented.”

Katko issued a statement saying, “I once again supported passage of the Equality Act, a bill that creates a uniform federal standard for preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In New York, this bill is already established law.”

Katko explained that the Equality Act provided clarity nationwide. He said, “But in states across the country, differing standards have made it difficult for employers to conform to conflicting laws. The Equality Act has received strong support from the business and manufacturing community. This bill will ensure equal opportunity in the workplace.”

The Equality Act amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity for protection alongside race, religion, sex and national origin. The bill also amends the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Jury Selection and Services Act, by expanding protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When you tell people that in a majority of states in this country, you can either be kicked out of your apartment, fired from your job, or denied service in a restaurant because you’re gay or in the LGBTQ community, people think that can’t be true,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), the lead House co-sponsor of the bill. Cicilline is openly gay.

The bill faced even stronger and more vocal opposition from Republicans this round than in 2019, in part because of the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County. That decision added protections from discrimination for gay, lesbian and transgender employees to the Civil Rights Act.

Nearly all the GOP speakers referred to the bill as the “Inequality Act.” Many argued that Bostock was sufficient and no other protections were needed.

The objections raised were often framed in homophobic and transphobic terms and language. Like the plethora of so-called “bathroom bills” that have been presented nationwide, these concerns from GOP lawmakers focused on protections for girls and women in women’s facilities, including dressing rooms, public and school restrooms and domestic violence shelters.

Republicans argued that transgender women and girls are really men masquerading as women and thus pose threats to women and girls in these areas. The implications — often baldly stated — were that transwomen and trans girls would pose a physical threat in women-only spaces.

There was also a refrain that transwomen would overtake women’s sports at all levels, pushing out cisgender girls and women altogether. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who chaired the Republican debate and who has been accused of allowing sexual assaults of college athletes in his previous position as wrestling coach at Ohio State University, was particularly concerned about trans athletes “invading” women’s sports.

Over a dozen Republicans cited legal cases brought by cisgender girls in high school sports against trans athletes. One case, in Connecticut, was being fought by former Attorney General Bill Barr, via the Trump Department of Justice. That case, brought by three cisgender high school girls, argues that allowing trans athletes to compete in girls’ sports forced those girls “to compete against boys.”

Barr agreed and his motion reads, “Under [the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s] interpretation of Title IX, however, schools may not account for the real physiological differences between men and women. Instead, schools must have certain biological males — namely, those who publicly identify as female — compete against biological females. In so doing, CIAC deprives those women of the single-sex athletic competitions that are one of the marquee accomplishments of Title IX.”

The Biden administration withdrew from the case on Feb. 26. In a filing, U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut John Durham wrote that the Justice Department had “reconsidered the matter,” according to a report in the AP.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (D) applauded the Biden decision. Tong was quoted by the AP, saying, “Transgender girls are girls and every woman and girl deserves protection against discrimination. Period.”

Additional objections to the Equality Act from Republicans centered on religious freedom. Lawmakers argued that people whose religious beliefs do not recognize same-sex marriage, which has been federal law since 2015, should be protected and that gay people should be kept out of heterosexual spaces.

Newly elected Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT), one of only two Black Republicans in the House, argued that his Mormon religion was threatened by the Equality Act provisions regarding public accommodations. Other GOP, like Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), argued that the Equality Act could “close down churches.”

Many other Republicans cited the Bible as a rationale against the Equality Act. Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), said passing the Equality Act “weaponized” civil rights law and “would ultimately put civil rights law at odds with longstanding religious beliefs pertaining to sex, sexuality, and other moral issues.”

Good argued, “The result would be that faith-based non-profits, such as a Christian shelter for women, an adoption agency, or other religiously motivated providers of social services could not serve in good conscience without suffering consequences under federal law.”

The day before the Equality Act came before the House for a vote, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) sought to prevent the bill from coming to a vote by presenting her own amendments, as PGN reported earlier.

Greene, who has a history of homophobic and transphobic statements, said in a speech Feb. 24 from the House floor that “biological women cannot compete against biological men.”

She said, “They will be in her locker room, they will be in her showers, they will be in her bathroom, they will be in her hotel room when she travels with her team. This is wrong.”

After that House debate, Greene got into a fracas with another House member, Marie Newman (R-IL), whose office is across the hall from Greene. Newman, who has a transgender daughter, posted a video tweet Feb. 24 after Greene’s attempt to stop the Equality Act failed by 12 votes.

Newman’s tweet said, “Our neighbor, @RepMTG, tried to block the Equality Act because she believes prohibiting discrimination against trans Americans is ‘disgusting, immoral, and evil.’ Thought we’d put up our Transgender flag so she can look at it every time she opens her door.”

Greene countered with her own video tweet. “Our neighbor, @RepMarieNewman, wants to pass the so-called ‘Equality’ Act to destroy women’s rights and religious freedoms. Thought we’d put up ours so she can look at it every time she opens her door.”

Greene put up a large sign that reads “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. ‘Trust The Science’!”

Several GOP lawmakers called out Greene in tweets over her actions, but still voted against the Equality Act on Thursday.

The Equality Act now goes to the Senate for debate and a vote. To become law, it must win 60 votes. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democratic and Republican senators with Vice-President Kamala Harris — a longtime LGBTQ ally — the tie-breaking vote.

Previous articleHoroscopes: Feb. 26 – March 4, 2021
Next articleIn praise of bipartisan support for The Equality Act
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.