The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act Thursday, an essential first hurdle to new LGBTQ protections under existing federal civil rights laws on housing, public access, education and federally funded programs.
But as the legislation now heads to the Senate, LGBTQ advocates in North Carolina say the push for local non-discrimination ordinances must maintain its recent momentum whatever the outcome at the federal level.
“It passed the House but it has an uphill battle in the Senate,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality N.C. “It needs 60 votes in the Senate and as you saw in the almost fully partisan vote in the House, it’s going to take some maneuvering to get to that 60 and really ratify the Equality Act.”
In December a state ban on new LGBTQ protections — including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing — was lifted. The ban was a legacy of the brutal fight over HB 2 and HB 142, the controversial laws that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections. Since it was lifted, six communities have unanimously voted to pass LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances — Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, Durham, Greensboro, Orange County.
Those local efforts are vital even as progress is made at the federal level, Johnson said.
“Everyone needs local protections, regardless,” Johnson said. “You’d want to have it ideally on all three levels of the government. Even though we’re part of a federal and a state framework, you want to have local mechanisms you can access. And that is why we see a federal civil rights code and civil rights statutes at the state level and then in some cities.”
Adam Polaski, communications director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, agreed.
“We see these various mechanisms as working in concert,” Polaski said. “The passage of local ordinances in North Carolina underlines that our state is ready for nondiscrimination and puts pressure on Senators Tillis and Burr to do the right thing by voting for the Equality Act. Meanwhile, the advancement of the Equality Act should encourage local leaders in North Carolina to take urgent action on behalf of LGBTQ North Carolinians and signal the moral and legal imperative for their communities to pass protections. We can and just end anti-LGBTQ discrimination and an essential step is securing the protections.”
The Equality Act would establish an important baseline, Polaski said — but it would create a floor for protections, not a ceiling.
“This is especially important in areas like private employment,” Polaski said. “Many of the local ordinances in North Carolina protect people from employment discrimination even at employers with 15 or fewer employees, which is more protective than existing federal law.”
One-third of all LGBTQ Americans live in the South,said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. They often face legislatures who continue to be hostile to progress on non-discrimination protections, despite polling that shows public support for such protections across party and geographical lines.
“So we have worked at every level of government to create protections,” Beach-Ferrara said. “From local communities passing ordinances, to encouraging executive and administrative actions at the state level, to working to elect pro-equality candidates at the local, state and federal levels.”
This week the Center for American Progress held a roundtable discussion on behalf of the Faith for Equality coalition where LGBTQ and faith leaders discussed the importance of the Equality Act.
One of the biggest names in American furniture, North Carolina’s Mitchell Gold, talked about the central nature of non-discrimination in building his Taylorsvile-based business.
“As a businessperson whose second nature it is to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity or race, religion, etc., that has served my business well since our founding over 30 years ago,” Gold said. “Enabling us to become a nationally recognized prestige home furnishings brand.”
In the business world he and his company might be described as “conservative,” he said — a description that should denote careful consideration and a willingness to devote deep thought and research into issues before acting. The sort of reactionary anti-LGBTQ sentiment he sees from the local level to Washington is anything but conservative, he said.
Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, said that while recent Supreme Court decisions and a more friendly presidential administration have allowed progress, LGBTQ protections need to be enshrined in law — local, state and federal.
“We cannot depend on always having a friendly administration; we cannot always depend on the courts to get it right,” Chandy said. “We need to have these protections in our federal civil rights laws.”
Johnson agreed. President Joe Biden’s administration has already reversed some of the anti-LGBTQ moves of former President Donald Trump’s administration, she said — but in a sense, that shows the volatile nature of the community’s rights without strong protections enshrined in law.
“We had three strong movements at the top of the year with the Biden administration,” Johnson said. “The reversal of the trans military ban, we had the interpretation of Bostock throughout his administration to utilize sex as sexual orientation and gender identity and then we had Housing and Urban Development also interpreting sex, with regard to discrimination, as sexual orientation and gender identity in terms of fair housing. Those are three huge things but we still have a long, long way to go.”
“Unfortunately, identities have become politicized,” Johnson said. “The reality is, there are things in our very constitution and even our Declaration of Independence where we say that we should all have equal rights but that has never, ever been the reality in these here United States. And so we still have work to do.”