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In uphill fight, Dems make case for Equality Act

Supporters confident bill would pass if GOP leaders allow a vote

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Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) speaks at the reintroduction of the Equality Act at the U.S. Capitol on May 2. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Trump’s November victory and Republican majorities in Congress aren’t stopping Democrats from reintroducing legislation seeking to enshrine into law comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

At an event Tuesday at the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), lead sponsors of the legislation in their respective chambers of Congress, touted the Equality Act as a means to extend LGBT progress in the face of current obstacles.

Cicilline, lead sponsor of the Equality Act in the U.S. House, said the legislation has more supporters than ever in the House and “reflects the simple idea that everyone, including members of the LGBT community, is entitled to equal treatment under the law and right to live free of discrimination.”

“It’s long past time to guarantee that equal protection under the law applies to every single American regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that’s exactly what the Equality Act will accomplish,” Cicilline said.

Merkley, lead sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said the Equality Act is the answer to the question of what constitutes a just and equal society.

“Every American deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” Merkley said. “Every American deserves to be able to pursue their full potential without the door of discrimination being slammed in their face. When we pass the Equality Act, non-discrimination will be the law of the land here in America once and for all, and that day could not come sooner.”

As when it was first introduced in the previous Congress, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.

The bill also seeks to update federal law to include gender in the list of protected classes in public accommodation in addition to expanding the definition of public accommodations to include retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services. Further, the Equality Act would establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty — can’t used to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invoked the recent ruling from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that found anti-gay discrimination on the job constitutes sex discrimination under current law, but said the Equality Act is needed to expand protections into other areas.

“Now we must pass the Equality Act to remove all doubt that sexual orientation and gender identity warrant civil rights protection, not just in the workplace, but every place,” Pelosi said.

Lawmakers at the event characterized the legislation as an effort to make a distinction between supporters of LGBT rights and their opposition in the White House and Congress.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, lamented being at “a different place” with Trump in the White House than expected when Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls.

“The truth is there has never been a more important time to keep up this fight, to lay out a vision for the kind of country that we all know we can be and to come together to pass the Equality Act,” Murray said. “Since the moment he walked into the White House, President Trump has laid out a hateful, damaging agenda to undo the hard won progress for the LGBTQ community.”

Upon its reintroduction in the 115th Congress, the Equality Act has a greater number of total co-sponsors in the House and Senate than ever before. The legislation has 195 co-sponsors in the House and 46 co-sponsors in the Senate. But the only Republican co-sponsor in either chamber is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), an LGBT-supportive Republican who this weekend said she plans to retire from Congress at the end of next year.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been a Republican who has taken the lead on pro-LGBT measures in the past, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but isn’t an Equality Act co-sponsor. The Washington Blade has placed a call to her office seeking comment on why she doesn’t co-sponsor the bill.

The remaining co-sponsors are all members of the Democratic caucuses. In the House, the only two Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors are Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.). Lipinski is a rare member of the Democratic caucus who’s known for holding anti-LGBT views. In the Senate, the only two Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors are Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.).

Despite the lack of Republican support in a Republican Congress, Cicilline expressed confidence Congress would approve the measure if the measure is allowed to come up for a vote when asked by a reporter about GOP support.

“It’s like so many things: The ultimate decision on whether or not this bill comes to the floor for a vote rests with the speaker of the House,” Cicilline said. “I have every confidence that if the bill came to the floor it would pass because I think most members of Congress recognize voting to continue practices of discrimination against individuals is un-American, and we would be successful in passing it.”

On the same day Democrats reintroduced the Equality Act, the Center for American Progress unveiled the results of a new report titled “Widespread Discrimination Continues to Shape LGBT People’s Lives in Both Subtle and Significant Ways,” which found 1 in 4 LGBT people report having experienced discrimination in 2016.

The Equality Act has been a source of heartburn for members of the civil rights community who fear the consequences of moving to the floor legislation that seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act. Poison pill or “religious freedom” amendments to the Equality Act could weaken the historic measure if they become law along with the Equality Act.

But that seems to be abating. Of the 47 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 46 are co-sponsors, including Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Cedric Richmond, chair of the caucus. That’s up from the last Congress when just more than two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus were co-sponsors of the legislation.

Trump is unlikely to support the legislation given anti-LGBT actions from the administration, such as reversal of Obama-era guidance protecting transgender kids from discrimination in school and ensuring they have access to school restrooms consistent with their gender identity. (The Equality Act was introduced just hours before a breaking news report in Politico that Trump intends to sign on Thursday a “religious freedom” executive order, which critics fear would enable anti-LGBT discrimination.)

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Florida

Florida prohibits Medicaid reimbursement for trans healthcare

Lambda Legal tells the LA Blade its “exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking”

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Photo Credit: Equality Florida

TALLAHASSEE – On Thursday, Florida officially joined the roster of conservative states whose Medicaid programs carve out coverage exemptions for transgender related healthcare, including gender-affirming therapies for young people. 

Against the guidance of mainstream medical opinion, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) ratified new rules prohibiting taxpayer reimbursement for puberty blockers, hormone therapies, or surgical procedures to treat gender dysphoria. 

“We are exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking,” wrote Carl Charles, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, in an emailed statement to The Los Angeles Blade. “Lambda Legal has secured victories on this issue in other states such as Alaska (Being v. Crum), and just this month in our case, Fain v. Crouch, in West Virginia.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Florida Chapter (FCAAP) wrote in an emailed statement to The Blade that they were “disheartened” by AHCA’s finalization of rules blocking Medicaid coverage for gender affirming care: 

“The state’s interference with the physician-patient relationship and its prohibition of this vital care will negatively impact Floridians who are trying to live their lives as their true, healthiest selves. As pediatricians, our only goal is to work with families and provide our patients with the best evidence-based care possible. When necessary and appropriate, that includes gender-affirming care. The AAP and FCAAP will continue to stand up in support of all young people, including those who are transgender.”

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return a request for comment in time for publication. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Also on Thursday, Florida’s AHCA inaccurately accused HHS and the AAP of misleading the public about the safety of transgender related healthcare, though it was not the first time the state’s health agency has butted up against its federal counterparts and associations of medical practitioners. 

AHCA previously issued a bulletin in April that prompted rebukes from groups including the Endocrine Society, which accused AHCA of spreading misinformation about healthcare treatments for transgender people, including youth. The bulletin’s contents also conflicted with official positions on these matters held by HHS. 

A coalition of legal advocacy organizations including Lambda Legal immediately condemned the AHCA’s latest move in a joint statement Thursday, writing: “Ignoring thousands of public comments and expert testimony, Florida’s AHCA has finalized a rule that will deny Medicaid coverage for all medically necessary gender-affirming care for both youth and adults. This discriminatory and medically unsound rule will take effect on August 21, 2022, putting transgender people in jeopardy of losing access to critical gender-affirming health care services.”

The statement also took aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “AHCA’s actions, at the behest of Governor DeSantis and his political appointees, are morally and legally wrong as well as medically and scientifically unsound. This rule represents a dangerous escalation in Governor DeSantis’s political zeal to persecute LGBTQ+ people in Florida, and particularly transgender youth.”

The Movement Advancement Project publishes a chart tracking state-by-state Medicaid coverage for transgender-related care, which is a patchwork of different exemptions and carveouts that generally maps onto the extent to which each leans conservative. 

Much like with other public health insurance programs like state employee health plans, discriminatory state Medicaid programs have often been the subject of litigation challenging them, in lawsuits that are often successful.

Nikole Parker, Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Equality in an emailed statement said:

“Just over one week from today, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, at the behest of Governor DeSantis, plans to strip thousands of vulnerable Floridians of their health care. Transgender people have been accessing gender-affirming care through Medicaid for years. That care is now being shut off by a state agency that has been corrupted, weaponized, and stacked with extremists by a governor desperate to fuel his own political ambitions.

Today, more than 9,000 transgender Floridians access care through Medicaid. On August 21, the state government will put  that care on the chopping block. As further evidence for his complete disregard for the health and well being of transgender Floridians, the DeSantis Administration has done nothing to quantify or assess the terrible impact this rule would have on the thousands of transgender people who rely on Medicaid for their care. The transgender community, like all people, shouldn’t have necessary, life-saving care stripped away by extremist politicians working overtime to stoke right-wing fervor. This brazen, politically-motivated attack is cruel, dangerous and puts the health of thousands at risk.”

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Virginia

Virginia’s Gov. Youngkin will force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students

“I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well informed”

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Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin (Screenshot/YouTube CBS News)

RICHMOND – Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin affirmed his support on Tuesday for measures that would require teachers to notify parents of their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity, regardless of the students’ consent. 

The move was justified under the pretext of protecting “parental rights,” a specious argument that has given cover to policies enacted by conservative legislatures across the country that target LGBTQ+ people, including students, in public schools. 

“With regards to informing parents with most important decisions about their children…Parents should be at the forefront of all of these discussions,” Youngkin told WJLA News. “And I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well informed about what’s happening in their kids’ lives.”

Critics, however, charge that coming out is an intensely personal act, that taking away a student’s ability to do so on their own terms can be psychologically damaging, intrusive, and hurtful. In some cases, for students whose parents or guardians might harbor anti-LGBTQ+ views, it can be dangerous. 

Lambda Legal reports between 20 and 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ and are “frequently rejected by their families or fleeing abusive long-term placements.” Forcibly outing young LGBTQ+ people can mean they will be forced to live on the streets. 

Notwithstanding Youngkin’s efforts to portray himself as a moderate when campaigning for governor, Tuesday’s statement follows a series of extreme rightward moves he has made with respect to education policies in the state that concern LGBTQ+ youth and subject matter. 

Florida’s controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics termed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was similarly premised on the right of parents to control the material to which their children will have access in school. 

In reality, the overbroad legislation prohibits any classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity for students in certain grades, which could potentially lead to disciplinary action against a teacher who mentions their same-sex spouse. 

Youngkin has similarly taken aim at educational materials in public schools, such as by signing into law SB656, which requires parental notification of nebulously defined “sexually explicit content.” 

Just after taking office in January, he set up a “tip line” to solicit comments from Virginia parents on “divisive practices” or the inclusion of curricula and materials they may consider objectionable. 

Plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits, the most recent of which was filed on Monday, accuse Youngkin of violating public records laws by his refusal to share “tip line” emails with news media organizations.

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Vermont

Out Vermont state senator wins Democratic primary in U.S. House race

Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress

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Screenshot via Becca Balint for Congress

MONTPELIER – The Green Mountain State’s state Senate president pro tempore has won the Democratic nomination for the state’s at-large congressional seat, the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Becca Balin is running to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress if elected in November. Vermont is the only state that has never had a female member of its congressional delegation.

The VTDigger, a statewide news website, reported; “Balint, 53, is the first openly gay woman elected to the Vermont Senate and the first woman to serve as its president. The former middle school teacher and stay-at-home mother won her first political contest in a race for her southeastern Vermont Senate seat in 2014

She rose quickly through the ranks of the Democrat-controlled chamber, becoming majority leader in 2017, at the start of her second term. Four years later, in 2021, she was elected pro tem — the top position in the Senate.”

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