The Equality Act: déjà vu for Danville?

Published 3:51 pm Monday, May 13, 2019


Contributing columnist

When the Equality Act comes to the House floor this week, it will be hailed as a great gain for LGBTQ rights and for freedom and justice, but it will also be condemned as a violation of religious freedom and of the safety, privacy and dignity of women. The debate may remind some of the arguments that surrounded the passage of a fairness ordinance in Danville in June 2014.   

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The Equality Act was introduced in the House in March, with 240 co-sponsors. It was voted 22-10 out of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month (with all Republican members voting against it). The bill adds sexual orientation and gender identity to existing civil rights statutes. It prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and jury service. You might call it a nationwide fairness ordinance.

A survey of over 40,000 people conducted earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute tells us something about Americans’ attitudes regarding gender equality and LGBT rights. About 69% of Americans support protections against LGBT discrimination. About 57% oppose allowing small businesses to refuse service because of religious beliefs of the proprietor (Nearly two-thirds of Republicans disagree). About  62% support same-sex marriage, with the only groups showing a majority in opposition being evangelical Protestants and Republicans.

About 23% of Americans regard gender equality as a critical issue; 17% regard LGBT rights as critical.  About 31% consider gender equality not important, and 45% feel that way about LGBT rights. About 37% of Democrats regard gender equality as critical, in contrast to 10% of Republicans. On LGBT rights, 29% of Democrats regard them as a critical issue as opposed to 7% of Republicans.

Women attach greater importance to gender equality than men — 28% to 18% (with a similar split among young Americans). On LGBT rights, the numbers are 20% for women and 14% for men. Young Americans (18-29) and seniors (65 and over) are virtually the same in their views.

The alarm level among the Equality Act’s opponents is high. It is variously labelled “heinous,” “nightmarish” and “civil tyranny, not civil rights.” It is charged with imposing “a radical sexual ideology” and with undoing President Trump’s most significant achievements, such as the transgender ban in the military. It has even made some radical feminists and Christian women conservatives allies because they believe it erases protections for women and will lead to violations of their safety, privacy and dignity.

The list of alleged charges is long: Bakers, florists, photographers and other small businesses would have to violate their beliefs. Pedophilia would be legalized. Employers would be forced to cover abortions and sexual “reassignment” procedures, and medical professionals would  have to perform them. (Federal judges have already struck down both of these possibilities.)

The military would have to pay for “reassignment” procedures and accept recruits suffering from gender dysphoria (a generalized feeling of ill-being). Faith-based adoption agencies would  have to violate their convictions, such as requiring a father and mother for every adopted child, or stop serving children in need.

It turns out that, in the 21 states that have such equality laws, there is no protection of pedophilia to be found among the new sexual identity protections. If religious businesses and organizations limit their rentals and services to members, they are exempt from the non-discrimination stipulations. If you have a business that serves the public, that is another matter. You may recall that Sunrise Children’s Services received an exemption from the local fairness ordinance because of religiously held beliefs about gay employment, although it was not officially a religious organization.

A particularly charged allegation targets instances where persons with male genitalia, for example, could take on a new female identity and proceed to use bathrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, shower rooms, etc. with women, putting them at risk of assault by predatory men. Women’s places on sports teams will be taken by men re-identifying as women. They might even try to live in women’s domestic violence shelters and continue their assaults. Male rapists might be put in women’s prisons and continue their violence.

Without trying to address every imagined predatory possibility, we should be aware that there have been positive outcomes where transgender persons have gained access to inclusive groups. Studies show that having transgender-inclusive public access does not lead to physical and sexual assault. On the contrary, restrictive policies regarding trans people have put them at risk on occasion.

The recent example of middle-distance winner of two Olympic gold medals, Caster Semenya, shows that women’s sports can get complicated. She has been told that she must reduce her naturally occurring high testosterone level or miss the next Olympics (despite the fact that the higher level does not cause the star performance). There will be more tough cases to solve in the future. However, businesses, military bases, teams and other organizations have learned and are learning to make adjustments in the interest of fairness, privacy, safety and dignity.

At the root of much of the most adamant opposition is a rejection of any deviation from a binary definition of sexuality. People are supposedly born either male or female, and they must conform to that biological determination. This insistence conflicts with much documented experience, testimony and scientific research.

When Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal testifies to the new found freedom of her 22-year-old, sexually non-conforming child, who is only now able to express who that person really is, we get a deeper sense of what is at stake for those with “non-conforming” gender identities and sexual orientations.

This is the first time a bill like the Equality Act has made it out of committee, after some earlier tries. It will be a surprise if it does not pass the House, but it will also be a surprise if it passes the Senate.  It will be an even greater surprise if gets the president’s signature. Still, the times are changing, and we can hope for more fairness in the future all over this land.