It’s 2019 and, in more than half of the states in the United States, it remains legal to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace, in housing, in public spaces, and many other areas. The absence of a federal anti-discrimination law has a deep impact in the everyday lives of this community: Research shows nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. have experienced discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin hopes to change that with the Equality Act, which is set to be introduced Wednesday. “The Equality Act amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Baldwin told Refinery29. “It’s important to have an uniform law at the federal level.”
The bill was previously introduced in 2015 and 2017, but it was never able to leave committee. That’s likely to change this time around: The legislation is expected to have the support of 230 representatives, 46 senators, and 161 corporate partners. With a Democratic majority in the House, the bill will likely pass there easily. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, is another story.
Regardless, the Equality Act marks a major milestone for the junior senator from Wisconsin. When she was first elected to federal office in 1998, she made history as the first openly LGBTQ+ member of Congress. She later shattered that same glass ceiling when she was elected to the Senate in 2012. Something that excites her is that the world has changed a lot since she was first elected to local office at the tender age of 24: In 2018 alone, over 400 LGBTQ+ candidates ran for office — and more than half won. These record-breaking victories are changing the political landscape and Baldwin is sure that will help win the next frontier to achieve equality in the United States.
Refinery29 met with Baldwin in a Manhattan coffee shop to talk about the Equality Act, the history-making 116th Congress, and the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Ahead, our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why do you think the Equality Act is necessary?
In 29 states, there are no legal protections, or inadequate legal protections, for people in the LGBTQ community, in areas that are central to living our lives: No protections against employment discrimination, housing discrimination, against being turned away from public accommodations and there’s a whole bunch more. It’s important to have an uniform law at the federal level so that everyone has these essential legal protections.
Since the moment when the Supreme Court announced its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, I think a lot of Americans … think, ‘Oh, equality has been achieved!’ This was an amazing landmark case, however if you live in any state that doesn’t have these other protections, it may actually be that you get married and your coworkers learn that you married somebody of the same-sex, and you face harassment or discrimination at work. Or your landlord hears about it. It makes the Equality Act really necessary. And we need to educate people that marriage equality didn’t create equality in every realm.
With a Democratic majority in the House, this bill will probably pass there easily. But, do you think you can get enough Republican support in the Senate?
Starting with the House, we have a pro-equality Democratic majority. And there are some Republicans who are pro-equality also. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I believe it will get voted in committee and then voted on the floor. It would mark the first time the Equality Act has passed any committee. That’s going to be an extraordinary milestone — but the goal is to pass it into law. I think that when the House passes it, and I believe they will, that reminds everybody how important the 2020 elections are. We have our doubts that Mitch McConnell would ever advance it and it’s his [choice]. And I have my doubts that President Trump would sign it. I think this would send a strong signal that, while we rejoice in this milestone in the House, this is not real until we go out and vote, we go out and tell our stories, we go out and organize. That’s what it takes to win elections and elect a pro-equality majority in the Senate and president.
Some believe that anti-discrimination laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community infringe on people’s religious freedom. What would you say to that?
My belief is that those same arguments were raised when we first passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When you say it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or religion, which is the current law, that doesn’t include churches. That same exception would apply to a law passed that adds sexual orientation and gender identity. The exclusions are small businesses, religious institutions, and the military. We have to obviously acknowledge that with our First Amendment that religious liberty is a key and cherished value. But the way the Civil Rights Act of 1964 works is that one’s liberty to practice their faith should not be at odds with somebody’s else freedom to live their lives.
In which other areas there’s still work needs to be done to help the LGBTQ+ community, other than enacting this federal anti-discrimination law?
There’s the importance of being counted. We’re heading towards the 2020 Census … [which data’s] informs policy. In addition to the census, there are several other federally-funded surveys about health and wellness. If you don’t ask, you will not going to be able to identify the special needs of vulnerable communities in our society. And I certainly would argue that without the Equality Act, the LGBTQ community is vulnerable. The Obama administration was trying to make sure that people in the LGBTQ community would be counted, and the Trump administration seems to be turning that around. If you’re not counted, you’re invisible. [For example, we wouldn’t] have the information to know that LGBTQ youth are more likely to face harassment and bullying and ... have a higher rates of attempted suicide and suicide.
You’re the first openly queer person ever to be elected to Congress and the Senate. How do you feel about the historic number of LGBTQ+ candidates who ran in 2018 and who won? Why does this type of representation matter?
I first ran for a tiny local office, the Dane County Board of Supervisors, in 1986 when I was 24-years-old. I learned of this organization that was trying to convene all the out LGBTQ officials, so we could network and share ideas. I went to a conference and I think they were about 14 attendees who were in elected office. We think that at that time, in ‘86, there were about two dozen out LGBTQ elected officials throughout the world. Last year, 244 — ten times that — won office [up and down the ballot] in that one election. … Seeing people in leadership positions — whether they are women, women of color, queer women, the whole thing — it gives somebody who might have second thoughts of whether they can pursue their dreams a sense of ‘Oh, I can.’
If you’re not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you. We bring our life’s experiences with us, so all the sudden that conversation becomes personal and different. For many, many years in the House and in the Senate, if LGBTQ issues came up, a bunch of people would say, “I know something about this” and it would be troubling, stereotypical descriptions or they would have a cousin who they dearly loved very, very much [and would be impacted]. When we’re there, it informs the conversation, the decisions, and the policy.
You mentioned the Trump administration before. What do you think about their anti-LGBTQ+ policies?
I remember getting involved in political life in 1986 — we would see slow progress and sometimes setbacks like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It took us years to address that. [Sometimes] the pace has been really slow, with small victories and some steps backwards — and then we had President Barack Obama. In eight years, because the stars were aligned and the passion was there, we saw so much progress starting with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the marriage equality decision. There were also things that didn’t always reach our radars, but that were vital like more courts looking at Title VII [which bars employment discrimination] and saying it covers gender identity.
And then the Trump administration comes in and February 2017, tells the Education Department of Betsy DeVos to rescind the Obama administration guidelines protecting vulnerable transgender children, tell the Justice Department to look at Title VII as not covering the LGBTQ community, and say transgender service members should not be able to openly serve. We’re seeing serious step backwards. We saw [measures] like this when Mike Pence was governor of Indiana. I don’t know how much it comes from him talking to President Trump, or how much it comes from President Trump himself and his advisors. But it is a scary time and a wakeup call for all us. If you care about freedom and you care about equality, we can’t take a pass on voting in 2020. We have to continue to educate, tell our stories, and be involved. What we did in 2018 was spectacular, but we’re not done.