In a Zoom forum held on June 1, GLAD Executive Director Janson Wu and Rhode Island’s own Congressman David Cicilline discussed the history of the proposed federal Equality Act, and its ramifications if passed. The bill, sponsored by Cicilline, which has passed in the House with the support of all Democrats and three Republicans, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the areas of public accommodations, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and jury service. The supermajority required to defeat a likely Senate filibuster leaves the bill's fate uncertain.
The panelists were introduced by a moderator representing COLAGE, who also read questions aloud posed by attendees. When asked how the passage of the Equality Act will affect Rhode Islanders (considering state law already prohibits the discrimination described above), Janson Wu explained that many healthcare plans are regulated under federal law, especially impacting protections for transgender Rhode Islanders, and there are implications around federal courts remedying disputes with employers. Wu further argued that it is high time to change the fact that LGBTQ+ people are excluded from federal protection under the Civil Rights Act, and pointed to huge successes in the fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights after hard-fought struggles. “We know that when we fight, we win,” he said.
Religious freedom and the participation of trans adolescents in sports were cited as being the two biggest arguments opponents cite to fight passage of this act. Wu refuted the existence of a mutually exclusive dichotomy stating, “We can support women and girls in athletics, and trans people in athletics. There will be balances that we have to strike… Athletics is so important because it teaches teamwork… When you exclude transgender youth, it's harmful.”
Congressman Cicilline added that there is “no evidence that trans women are winning at a higher rate in women's sports. It's a non-issue [and an] argument in search of a problem that doesn't exist.” He added that most women's sports organizations support the Equality Act.
When a participant suggested that the bill would assuredly die in the Senate, Cicilline disagreed that it was a foregone conclusion, and that civil rights laws customarily carve out religious exemptions to balance discrimination protections and religious freedom; these exemptions may need to be negotiated if the filibuster impedes progress on civil rights. “No one is going to give us our rights. We have to fight for them,” Cicilline said.
When considering what supporters of the Equality Act can do to support its passage, Wu explained that the bill has the strong support of most Americans, but it's not their top issue. “We need them to care so strongly about it, that this is their deciding factor when they go into the election booth.” Wu recommended watching Changing the Game, a documentary on Hulu featuring the stories of three students fighting for the right to be able to participate in their school's athletics, and sharing the film with people on the fence about the Equality Act. “These young activists are incredible, and they are showing us how to win.”