The Equality Act and the Age-Old Fight for Equal Rights

Isabel Smith, Copy Editor

Nearly 50 years ago, a stout, no-nonsense woman from the state of New York stood in the U.S. House Chamber and introduced a rudimentary version of the Equality Act with only one cosponsor by her side. The purpose of the act: to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, and sexual orientation. It was the first piece of federal legislation to ever address discrimination based on sexual orientation in American history. It was progressive, it was bold, and its modern equivalent is currently sitting in the Senate—all the way in 2021—having died repeatedly in Congress for decades.


The History of the Equality Act

The Equality Act was first introduced in 1974 by Congresswoman Bella Abzug from New York. At the time, her only cosponsor was fellow New York Congressman Ed Koch, and both worked with the recently formed National Gay Task Force (NGTF), the first national gay rights organization in the country, to promote the act and formulate its contents. The act was introduced in Congress during the burgeoning beginnings of the Gay Libertation movement—there was still an overwhelmingly negative perception of LGBTQ individuals at the time—and in fact, Abzug did not introduce the bill in order to pass it. Abzug knew that the act would never garner enough support to pass in the 1970s, but according to historian Jeffry Iovannone, “she knew the value of a well-timed and strategically placed statement,” and used the media coverage and political visibility drummed up by the Equality Act to insert conversations on LGBTQ rights into national politics and encourage LGBTQ individuals to see themselves as a cross-country coalition.


The Modern Equality Act

Although the Equality Act and other reiternations of it failed to gain traction in the ‘70s, the idea itself is more alive than ever. Reintroduced by Rhode Island House representative David Cicilline in 2015, the modern Equality Act parrots the goal of the original to protect individuals from discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation by adding these categories to the widely signficant Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the revised act also aims to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, extending these civil protections to transgender and non-binary individuals, and expand the scope of the Civil Rights Act so that individuals in all others categories, such as race and religion, receive protection against discrimination in recreational sites, businesses, transportation services, and other previously excluded public accommodations. Regarding this, freshman Daania Sohail said, “Equality is crucial for America, especially, because many people see America as a place to feel in a community—a place where everyone helps each other. I feel that we should enact that belief and make others feel welcome.”

As it stands, passage of the Equality Act would be a major victory for the LGBTQ community in America as it would ensure their most basic rights to housing, employment, education, etc. on a national scale. The act would also prevent incidents like business owners denying patrons based on their religion or ethnicity. To freshman Samiha Sohail, this portion of the act is exceedingly important: she says, “Personally, I feel like I’ll be protected by this act because I am a Muslim. Muslims around the world, right now, are treated as terrorists, but under this act, I won’t have to suffer from as much discrimination.”


The Equality Act in 2021

On Feb. 25, the Equality Act of 2021 passed through the House with a 224-206 majority to the fervent approval of the LGBTQ community. The fight to get the Equality Act on President Joe Biden’s desk, though, is an arduous one. The act has a long history with the phrase “died in committee,” and the current lack of progress on this bill following a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee does not exactly scream of high prospects. Although there is said to be “a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” the Senate is in a stalemate, compromise refuses to be had, and there are no present plans to vote on the act.

The stall is not without reason, though. Many conservatives have bought up points of contention when it comes to religious exemptions, gendered public spaces, and athletics. According to CNN, while the bill “does not affect houses of worship because of religious protections,” the Equality Act “could still apply to religiously affiliated institutions, schools, and hospitals that receive federal money.” Essentially, the federal government would be forced to cut off funding to valuable educational and medical institutions if they do not comply with the law.

Furthermore, the bill allows gendered public spaces, like restrooms and locker rooms, to be used in agreement with an individual’s gender identity. The notorious conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, shares the opinion of many conservative Americans that this section of the Equality Act would endanger the privacy and safety of women in particular by increasing the threat of sexual assault in these areas. Junior Kaiden Thompson understood the root of this concern, saying, “I can see where this is coming from. The scenario I can see is a guy can claim to be a trans woman, walk into a women’s restroom, and then that’s a rape case.” In a slightly different perspective, junior Vanshika Balaji expressed that the prevalence of this problem is all the more reason for bipartisan concession on the Equality Act, saying, “I think it’s dumb. If men are being creepy in women’s bathrooms, then that’s a problem with men and trans people shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of that. They should figure out how to stop sexual assaults like this in the first place rather than restricting people’s rights.”

All the volatile issues that are associated with the Equality Act are making it increasingly and devastatingly unlikely that the bill will survive its latest jaunt through the legislative process. The Washington Blade laments, “Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom.” The insistence of LGBTQ organizations to keep the Equality Act afloat is almost the only barrier keeping its record free of a shiny new “died in committee” stamp.

Ultimately, if not in this Congress, the patchwork protections for members of the LGBTQ community need to be addressed eventually. These Americans have been living in and working for and serving this country for centuries without a stable guarantee on their rights. Thompson summed up this struggle valiantly, after a heartening story about the vibrance of a friend who identifies as gay and asexual, when he said, “The Equality Act defends people, and it fills the holes to get closer to the idea of the American Dream for everyone. I wouldn’t deny these things to my own friend, so why would you do it to anyone else? They’re people. They’re not aliens; they’re not creatures; they’re not mystical wizards from another dimension. They’re just people.”