On Feb. 25, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, which would officially extend equal protection to the LGBTQ+ community. In a 224-206 vote, the act incorporates sexual orientation and gender identity in the list of categories protected from discrimination in areas such as public accommodations and facilities, education, employment and housing.
The Equality Act modifies the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which officially terminated racial segregation in public spaces and outlawed employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion or nationality. But, two key types of discrimination were excluded from the original act – sexual orientation and gender identity.
The act also amends the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Jury Selection and Services Act to protect LGBTQ+ individuals from facing discrimination in housing, seeking credit from a bank and jury selection.
David Price, the U.S. representative for Orange County, co-sponsored the act, which was introduced by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, (D-R.I.), on Feb. 18.
“It is my priority to advocate within my jurisdiction at the federal level to protect the rights of all the constituents I represent,” Price said in an email. “Enacting federal protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community is long overdue.”
The act’s approval was largely split along party lines. Three Republican representatives, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania along with John Katko and Tom Reed of New York, voted in favor of the bill.
However, this Equality Act is not the first bill proposing the elimination of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 1974, Rep. Bella Abzug, a Democrat from New York, introduced an early version of the Equality Act, whose goals essentially matched those introduced by Rep. Cicilline in February of 2021.
“It's terribly disheartening, but like all civil rights fights, they are long and hard because identities become politicized,” Kendra R. Johnson, the executive director of Equality North Carolina, said. “If the country states that we’re about liberty and justice for all, we need to finally meet that promise.”
Johnson's work at Equality NC centers on promoting equality and justice for all minority groups in the workplace, education, hospitals, housing and daily life activities.
“We're constantly being discriminated against when we are looking for employment, when we're looking for housing credit,” Johnson said. “When we do not have a level playing field in the United States, we should be pushing in order to guarantee that everyone has a fair shot at the promise.”
Members of the LGBTQ+ community suffer from discrimination because of their gender identity or sexuality in the workplace, housing, public spaces, federally supported programs, jury service and more. According to the Human Rights Campaign, two-thirds of the LGBTQ+ community has faced some form of discrimination or maltreatment because of their sexuality.
Olivia Sullivan, a junior at UNC, spoke in an email about her personal experience with individuals treating her differently because of her sexuality. When she started coming out to loved ones, she said she struggled to control the narrative.
“Without small victories or large obstacles, our motivation to maintain our activism would dwindle even faster,” Sullivan said. “And considering all the forces we have working against us, getting this act passed through the House is no small victory.”
The Equality Act protects individuals in the public setting, but according to the HRC, the end goal is to achieve fair treatment in all areas of life, public and private, for all individuals.
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle also gave her thoughts on the Equality Act and the effect it already has in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough.
“We basically passed our own town non-discrimination ordinance,” Lavelle said. “You can’t discriminate against someone in employment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity — we put in hairstyles and some other kinds of categories — you can’t discriminate based on employment and you can't do that based on public accommodation.”
While progress persists in the House, the Equality Act must face the Senate. With equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, if the vote on the bill results in a tie, Vice President Kamala Harris will cast the deciding vote.
“If this act does not pass, then it will still be legal, in 2021, for me to be fired solely because I like women,” Sullivan said. “By voting against this act, you are telling me and every other queer person, especially in the South, that we are wrong — take my queerness, and you take all of me.”
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