Ten members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation voted to pass The Equality Act. While I’m grateful for all of their support, nine of their votes — the nine Democrats — were less of a surprise. In fact, every Democrat in congress voted for the Equality Act. And in the U.S. Senate, all but one Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, are original sponsors of the bill. If it were possible to pass The Equality Act with only Democratic support then this would be enough. But the bill will not get through the Senate without bipartisan support. We can blame the arcane Senate rules or we can roll up our sleeves to work for a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Senate. I prefer the latter. Our rights can’t wait another decade.
That’s why I was so pleased to see Bucks County’s member of congress, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, vote for The Equality Act. I’ve always been a registered Democrat, and for four years I led the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus. So I’m not one who often writes opinion pieces praising Republicans. But Fitzpatrick’s vote for The Equality Act is in fact praiseworthy. There was enormous pressure for him to vote the other way. Pressure to ensure unified Republican opposition in the House of Representatives. His vote prevented that from happening. He was one of only three courageous members of his caucus to vote with the entire Democratic caucus to advance LGBT civil rights.
The Equality Act has been a long time coming. First introduced in 1974 by Bella Abzug, the bill has long languished in the halls of congress. A narrower, employment-only version of the bill passed the Senate a decade ago, and the last congress passed the Equality Act through the House but the Senate didn’t take it up.
The Equality Act is not a symbolic measure; it is essential to the livelihoods of LGBTQ people everywhere. It would enshrine into law protections from discrimination in housing, employment, public accomodation, credit, and jury service. It will end the unsustainable and confusing patchwork of civil rights laws for our community where our zipcodes can determine whether we are protected from discrimination. It will make non-discrimination the law of the land in every municipality in Pennsylvania and in all fifty states.
LGBTQ non-discrimination protections are widely supported, including by 73% of Pennsylvanians. This is something we all should fight for. We can start by thanking Fitzpatrick. His vote is a reflection of the bipartisan support for nondiscrimination that Pennsylvanians know to be true. We have seen so many examples of this in the past, from former Congressman Charlie Dent to former Governor Tom Ridge. Fitzpatrick’s vote demonstrates that protection from discrimination for LGBTQ people isn’t a Democratic issue, it is an American value.
The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate, where some pundits have already suggested it is DOA. I disagree. Yes, we need bipartisan support to pass it through the Senate. And in my opinion this is possible. Senator Toomey has not indicated where he will land. But he did vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2011. He publicly supported the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and he condemned anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya. Toomey has the opportunity to join Fitzpatrick in support of The Equality Act. Toomey sits on the banking committee, and his vote for The Equality Act can put an end to legal credit discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Toomey has the opportunity to be part of a bipartisan Senate vote to secure LGBTQ non-discrimination protections in all corners of Pennsylvania. Businesses of all sizes are in agreement with labor unions that this is common sense. Real estate professionals and tenants agree that the time for this bill has come. Toomey can look at the House vote to see bipartisan support from Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. Fitzpatrick made that happen in the House. Toomey, now it’s your turn.
Adrian Shanker is executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.