After high-level service in the Obama administration that included fighting for LGBT rights at both the Labor and Justice Departments, Tom Perez is looking to become the next Democratic National Committee chair.
In an interview Friday with the Washington Blade, Perez said in a crowded field of contenders his history of support for LGBT rights makes him the best candidate for the LGBT community.
“I have always fought for equality and opportunity for the LGBTQ community, and if I have the privilege of being elected, past is prologue, the best to judge what someone is going to do in the future is look at what they’ve done in the past, and I’m very proud of my history with partnership with the LGBTQ community because everybody in this country deserves to be treated with dignity,” Perez said.
Perez’s work on LGBT rights goes back as far as the 1990s, when as a former staffer for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy he said he drafted an initial version of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Working under the Obama administration as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Perez testified before Congress in favor of ENDA and led an effort in which Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota agreed to change practices to stop the anti-LGBT bullying it allowed in school.
As labor secretary, Perez was charged with enforcing President Obama’s executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors and interpreted an earlier order from President Lyndon Johnson prohibiting employment bias on the basis of sex to apply to transgender workers. Perez also extended federal benefits to same-sex couples, such as those under the Family & Medical Leave Act, in aftermath of the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also at the Labor Department, Perez hired Dylan Orr, who was the first openly transgender person to be appointed to a presidential administration and now works for the city of Seattle as director of the Office of Labor Standards.
Ed Murray, who’s gay and serves as mayor of Seattle, supports Perez and said the candidate’s background on LGBT rights is exactly what is needed at the DNC.
“Secretary Perez has been a strong partner and advocate on LGBTQ issues,” Murray said. “It is critical that our Democratic Party leader be able to stand up for the needs of the LGBTQ community, and build a national coalition that will continue to protect the civil rights of all in the face of discrimination.”
The election for chair is set to take place Saturday during the DNC’s winter meeting in Atlanta.
Here’s the full interview between Perez and the Washington Blade:
WASHINGTON BLADE: Can you tell me what you have to offer the DNC that other candidates aren’t offering?
TOM PEREZ: I think the DNC chair needs to be someone who knows how to take the fight to Donald Trump, knows how to win fights, knows how to talk to every stakeholder in our big tent and has a proven track record as a turnaround specialist. The DNC is suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance, and it’s a complex organization, and it needs a leader who can turn it around.
That’s what I’ve done at the Department of Labor; it’s what I’ve done at the Department at Justice beforehand. Taking organizations with a critical mission that weren’t firing on all cylinders and making sure that we got the best of out of those organizations.
That’s what I’ve done there. That’s what I hope to do as the head of the DNC is make sure we are putting our values into action, and we our values into action by among other things turning around this big ship that I think needs a lot of transformation. That’s how we succeed.
BLADE: You’ve been endorsed by Steny Hoyer and Joe Biden. A lot of a people would say you’re the establishment candidate in the race for chair. How would you respond to that characterization?
PEREZ: This is one of the first times I’ve heard of the farm workers referred to as establishment. They’re supporting me. The UFCW is supporting me, a number of other labor unions are supporting me.
I think it’s really important, Chris, to avoid labels and look at the substance of what people have done. I spent my entire life fighting for marriage equality. I worked for Sen. Kennedy in the ’90s when he was one of the lonely voices against the Defense of Marriage Act, then I fought at the Justice Department to make sure we didn’t defend it.
I took Wall Street on, negotiated two of the largest fair lending settlements in history of the Fair Housing Act. We took on bullying in the public schools in Anoka-Hennepin on behalf of LGBTQ young students. And we took a lot of grief for that, but we took that fight on. We took on the fight of police reform and negotiated more police consent decrees with police departments with my tenure as the Justice Department’s head of the civil rights division than had been in the preceding 15 years history of the statute.
So, when you look at the fights I’ve done and you move away from labels, I think the evidence is pretty clear that I’ve taken on some pretty important fights on behalf of long-established principles of the Democratic Party, the principles of inclusion, the principle that every deserves a fair shake and the principle of economic security — that if you work hard and play by the rules you can punch your ticket to the middle class. And I’ll hold my record of accomplishment on these long-established goals and values and principles of the Democratic Party up against anyone.
BLADE: You say you’re 44 votes short of getting a majority of the delegates to win the race for DNC chair. How do you envision claiming victory in Atlanta?
PEREZ: Well, that was as of two days ago. So, every day since we reached that mark, we keep moving forward. And I’m out in Chicago right now, was in West Virginia, Pennsylvania yesterday and I’ll be in Iowa later today. And I’ll be criss-crossing the country between now and next week. A lot of undecided voters out there, and we’re taking our case directly to them and that’s what grassroots campaign are about, making house calls.
That’s what the Democratic Party needs to do more of in order to make sure we’re winning seats from school board to state houses across this country is make house calls. That’s what I’m doing and I’m learning a lot on my visits with various people around the country.
BLADE: As chair of the DNC, you’ll be doing a lot of political organizing for the upcoming elections. There was a lot of discussion as to why Hillary Clinton lost the last one. Why do you think Hillary Clinton lost the election?
PEREZ: First of all, it’s important to remember that she did win the popular vote and there were a lot of factors that led to her not crossing the electoral finish line. Certainly, the Russian hack had something to do with it. Certainly, the Comey letter had something to do with it. And certainly there were mistakes that were made that were absolutely critical, and these were mistakes that have been occurring, frankly, for a number of election cycles.
We have to make house calls. All too frequently now, Democrats across the board have relied on paid analysts to the exclusion of that on-the-ground, 12-month-out-of-the-year organizing presence.
So in places like Milwaukee, we underperformed in Milwaukee, in places like Wisconsin where Romney got more votes in 2012 than Trump in 2016, we underperformed because we didn’t do enough to talk to people both in the Milwaukee area and frankly in the rural parts of the state. I did a visit to rural Wisconsin about a week or so ago, and what I heard directly from people is that we feel ignored. Many people in Michigan felt ignored.
And the Democratic Party abandoned its 50 state strategy a number of years ago and we’ve ignored whole swaths of zip codes, and we’ve got to change that. That wasn’t something that simply began in 2016, that’s something that’s been going on for some time. And so, the 57-state strategy of organizing in every zip code — not just the states, but the territories and the District of Columbia. It’s all about making sure we’re making house calls again, it’s all about getting back to basics, organizing, organizing and organizing.
The Republicans won Florida in no small measure because after they lost for the second consecutive time to President Obama in 2012, they embarked on a joint venture between the RNC, the Koch brothers and mostly the Southern Baptist Church, and it was a four-year, 12-month-a-year grassroots campaign to identify their voters and they identified roughly 125,000, 130,000 [voters] — and that was the difference in the 2016 campaign. We’ve got to do the same thing.
Our values are solid. We didn’t lose this election because we have the wrong values. Our values of economic opportunity, good jobs, middle-class security and inclusion and opportunity for everyone — those are timeless values of the Democratic Party. So what we have to do is get back to basics and make sure we’re building those strong parties, we’re talking to people, we’re communicating a consistent message and many people didn’t people didn’t hear a message sufficiently about the Democratic Party.
And again, it’s not just what happened in the presidency that I ask, it’s what happened over the last eight years when we lost over 900 seats in state legislatures. That wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s doing. That was the doing of, I think, a number of systemic mistakes that the party has made, and what I’m all about is getting back to our grassroots organizing everywhere. Supporting the development of strong state parties, making sure that we’re supporting candidates from the school board to the Senate. I’ve been talking recently with Democratic attorneys general about how we can support them. I’m meeting with secretaries of state tomorrow.
We’ve got to run candidates up and down the ticket. We’ve got to support them. I’m optimistic we can do this because, I think, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, millions of Americans have awakened to the reality that he does not stand for their values.
BLADE: What’s your plan for LGBT issues at the DNC?
PEREZ: My plan is what my plan has been for the last 25 years of being a civil rights lawyer and a labor rights lawyer: To continue to make sure that the LGBT community has a meaningful seat at the table.
That’s what I did when I when I worked with Sen. Kennedy. That’s what I did at the Justice Department. When I worked with Sen. Kennedy, I was one of the staffers who wrote the original version of what became the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. I started working on that back in ’95.
When I went to the Civil Rights Division, the first hearing I testified at was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the bill that I worked on with Sen. Kennedy. When I was back at the Civil Rights Division in 2009, the work we did on bullying, especially the Anoka-Hennepin case was a landmark because we hadn’t done a bullying case at the Department of Justice involving the bullying of LGBTQ communities, and when I got to the Labor Department, making we sure that we expended the reach of the landmark executive order, the anti-discrimination order from the 1960’s relating to discrimination by federal contractors that didn’t protect the LGBTQ community, and we changed that. It was incredibly important.
So, throughout my life, I have always fought for equality and opportunity for the LGBTQ community and if I have the privilege of being elected, past is prologue, the best way to judge what someone is going to do in the future is look at what they’ve done in the past and I’m very proud of my history with partnership with the LGBTQ community because everybody in this country deserves to be treated with dignity, and I have personally been involved in hate crimes cases where somebody was brutally assaulted or murdered simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. And that has no place in the American fabric. None whatsoever. So I’ve seen the impact of discrimination firsthand in the work that I’ve done and it’s part of my DNA.
BLADE: In terms of structure, how do you envision getting LGBT people to have “a meaningful seat at the table” at the DNC?
PEREZ: Well, Earl Fowlkes is a very strong leader of the caucus and I certainly would continue our work there. What I learned from talking to current voting members in the DNC is that they feel under-utilized. They’re not alone. It’s not just LGBTQ members of the DNC that feel under-utilized.
When I talked at the outset, you asked why am I uniquely qualified, or why do I think I’m uniquely qualified. This organization, the Democratic Party, the DNC needs culture change. There’s a command-and-control structure right now. People with tremendous talent, we’re not making use of those talents. There are so many members who are chronically under-utilized. We don’t ask for their opinions. We don’t engage them. And with the activism out there right now, with all the movements that are being established, many just are simply organic movements. It’s more important than ever that we make use of our caucuses, including, but not limited to, the LGBT caucus.
One of the promises I’ve made to every member is you will not feel under-utilized. When I got to the Labor Department, we were second from the bottom on best places to work in the federal government. And when I left, we were in the top third, including two years in a row where we were the most improved federal agency. I understand a bit on how to change culture and agencies. How to take a complex organization and ensure that it’s firing on all cylinders. One very important aspect of that is making sure you make the best use of your talent.
How often have you seen in the world of sports a team with talent that’s not performing to its potential because it’s coaching leadership is moving the ball down the field? We need to make sure we have a coach who can move the ball down the field, engage and make sure everybody’s included, everybody is being used to their highest and best talents, and that’s what I want to do.
And I want to make sure that we have — I’m a big believer in what I call diversity and inclusion. It’s not simply we got to have X number of members of the DNC who are LGBT. People have to be included in a meaningful way. Diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being asked to dance, and we need to make sure everybody at the DNC — these are talented people with a great record of accomplishment. But it’s remarkably saddening and maddening to me that they’re under-utilized.
BLADE: What role, if any, would President Obama have at a Perez-run DNC?
PEREZ: First of all, I think, the president is going to go down in our nation’s history as one of the most impactful presidents in our history. The work that he did for the LGBTQ community especially, but not exclusively, was landmark from the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to marriage equality and so many other aspects. And I know President Obama is going to stay involved because he cares very deeply about the ideals and values of the Democratic Party.
And, frankly, a big part of the work of the DNC right now is to protect his legacy because the Affordable Care Act is not a job-killer, it’s a life-saver, and people are starting to realize how important the Affordable Care Act is as Republicans attempt to repeal it, and we have to make sure we fight that. And I know President Obama is going to be fighting side-by-side.
It was an honor of a lifetime to work with him and I am confident that he is going to be a strong supporter of our efforts to ensure that the Democratic Party is firing on all cylinders.
BLADE: Let’s talk about some recent news related to your old job as labor secretary. What do you make of Andrew Puzder withdrawing his name from consideration and President Trump nominating Alexander Acosta?
PEREZ: Well, Andrew Puzder was unqualified and unsuited for the job. He had a lot of experience with the Department of Labor. I have to acknowledge that, but it was bad experience. He was a chronic defendant in wage and hour and other employment actions. His whole philosophy is to profit off of the hard-earned labor of low-wage workers. His called his own workers “the worst of the worst.” And he was just unsuited for the job, and not only did Democrats understand that, but because of advocacy of so many in the us, Republicans started to understand this guy was bad news.
And so, the withdrawal of that nomination is a very good example of the power of organizing. People talked about, well, Tom, you don’t have the White House, you don’t have the Senate, you don’t have the House. We have something far more important because while January 20 was undeniably important and we lost some levers of power, January 21 and beyond was far more important because the American people in the millions are rising up and saying to Donald Trump, “Andrew Puzder doesn’t stand for our values, Andrew Puzder is antithetical to who we are. You are the president, but you don’t stand for our values, you didn’t win the popular vote and you’re the most unpopular president entering office in our nation’s history. And we’re going to keep fighting.” And I think the Puzder fight is a great example.
I am going to study the record of Mr. Acosta. I haven’t studied it enough, so I think it’s important to make sure that I’m studying the record before I offer any opinions. I can say that I studied the record of Mr. Puzder very, very carefully, and he was categorically unsuited for the job. So, frankly, I’m relieved…The day before yesterday was a good day for working people with the withdrawal of that.
But it’s another illustration of this “Chaos Cabinet.” Lt. Gen. Flynn is an abject danger to our national security, and his resignation is the tip of the iceberg. We need to an independent counsel to take a look at that, and the notion that Jeff Sessions is an independent person to look at what criminal activity Flynn was involved in and who else with him, that’s quintessential fox guarding the hen house. They were out on the campaign trail for Trump, so we go to make sure that there’s something, that there’s an independent counsel or commission that’s looking at this because this is serious stuff what this president has done.
It’s clear that he was involved during the campaign in contact with the Russians. That’s outrageous. And if Hillary Clinton had won this election with help from Vladimir Putin, they would have already drafted articles of impeachment. They had 15 hearings on Benghazi, and now so many of them have a sock in their mouth on this issue. It’s rank hypocrisy.
BLADE: Despite all the things that President Trump has done, one thing that the White House has said is that he is going to keep the Obama-era executive order barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors in the workplace. Do you think that’s a good thing and how confident are you that he’s going to keep to that promise?
PEREZ: I have no confidence in anything that this president says. Look at who he just nominated for the Supreme Court. If I’m someone who cares about labor unions, if I’m someone who cares about women’s reproductive health, if I’m someone who cares about LGBTQ equality, marriage equality, this nominee is trouble with a capital “T.”
And this president has started this administration by going after all of our allies and one thing I learned from working with my colleagues and friends in the LGBT community is that we are all together in coalition. I think we are all under assault because he has made our nation less safe, he’s made our democracy less than the envy of the world. We’re the laughing stock of the world. His assaults on immigrant rights, his assaults on refugee rights, his nominations, there’s nothing but trouble ahead.
NOTE: This interview has been edited for length.
Top 10 Blade news stories by web traffic
COVID breakthroughs, Equality Act, and anti-trans attacks
Each year our staff gathers in late December to review the highest trafficked stories of the year and there’s more than a little bit of competitive spirit as we review the results. Here are the top 10 stories by web traffic at HYPERLINK “http://washingtonblade.com”washingtonblade.com for 2021.
#10: Mark Glaze, gun reform advocate, dies at 51
The sad, tragic story of Glaze’s death captivated readers in November.
#9: COVID breakthrough infections strike summer tourists visiting Provincetown
This one went viral in July after a COVID outbreak was blamed on gay tourists.
#8: Thank you, Kordell Stewart, for thoughtful response to ‘the rumor’
This opinion piece thanked the former NFL quarterback for writing a personal essay addressing gay rumors.
#7: Elliot Page tweets; trans bb’s first swim trunks #transjoy #transisbeautiful
The actor created excitement by posting his first photo in swim trunks back in May.
#6: Romney declares opposition to LGBTQ Equality Act
Mitt Romney disappointed activists with his announcement; the Equality Act passed the House but never saw a vote in the Senate.
#5: White House warns state legislatures that passing anti-trans bills is illegal
The year 2021 saw a disturbing trend of GOP-led legislatures attacking trans people.
#4: Lincoln Project’s avowed ignorance of Weaver texts undercut by leaked communications
The Lincoln Project’s leaders, amid a scandal of co-founder John Weaver soliciting sexual favors from young men, have asserted they were unaware of his indiscretions until the Blade obtained electronic communications that called that claim into question.
#3: FOX 5’s McCoy suspended over offensive Tweet
Blake McCoy tweeted that obese people shouldn’t get priority for the COVID vaccine.
#2: Transgender USAF veteran trapped in Taliban takeover of Kabul
Among the Americans trapped in the suburban areas of Kabul under Taliban control was a transgender government contractor for the U.S. State Department and former U.S. Air Force Sergeant. She was later safely evacuated.
#1: Amid coup chaos, Trump quietly erases LGBTQ protections in adoption, health services
And our most popular story of 2021 was about the Trump administration nixing regulations barring federal grantees in the Department of Health & Human Services from discriminating against LGBTQ people, including in adoption services.
CDC still falling short on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients: expert
Despite requests since the start of the COVID pandemic for the U.S. government to enhance data collection for patients who are LGBTQ, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is still falling short on issuing nationwide guidance to states on the issue, a leading expert health on the issue told the Blade.
With a renewed focus on COVID infections reaching new heights just before the start of the holidays amid the emergence of Omicron, the absence of any LGBTQ data collection — now across both the Trump and Biden administrations — remains a sore point for health experts who say that information could be used for public outreach.
Sean Cahill, director of Health Policy Research at the Boston-based Fenway Institute, said Wednesday major federal entities and hospitals have been collecting data on whether patients identify as LGBTQ for years — such as the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, which has been collecting sexual orientation data since the 1990s — but the CDC hasn’t duplicated that effort for COVID even though the pandemic has been underway for two years.
“It’s not like this is a new idea,” Cahill said. “But for some reason, the pandemic hit, and all of a sudden, we realize how little systematic data we were collecting in our health system. And it’s a real problem because we’re two years into the pandemic almost, and we still don’t know how it’s affecting this vulnerable population that experiences health disparities in other areas.”
The Blade was among the first outlets to report on the lack of efforts by the states to collect data on whether a COVID patient identifies as LGBTQ, reporting in April 2020 on the absence of data even in places with influential LGBTQ communities. The CDC hasn’t responded to the Blade’s requests for nearly two years on why it doesn’t instruct states to collect this data, nor did it respond this week to a request for comment on this article.
Cahill, who has published articles in the American Journal of Public Health on the importance of LGBTQ data collection and reporting in COVID-19 testing, care, and vaccination — said he’s been making the case to the CDC to issue guidance to states on whether COVID patients identify as LGBTQ since June 2020.
Among those efforts, he said, were to include two comments he delivered to the Biden COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in spring 2021, a letter a coalition of groups sent to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officers asking for states to collect and report SOGI in COVID in December 2020 as well as letters to HHS leadership and congressional leadership in spring and summer 2020 asking for them to take steps to encourage or require SOGI data collection in COVID.
Asked what CDC officials had to say in response when he brought this issue to their attention, Cahill said, “They listen, but they don’t really tell me anything.”
“We’ve been making that case, and to date, as of December 22, 2021, they have not issued guidance, they have not changed the case report form. I hope that they’re in the process of doing that, and maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised in January, and they’ll come up with something…I really hope that’s true, but right now they’re not doing anything to promote SOGI data collection and reporting in surveillance data.”
Cahill, in an email to the Blade after the initial publication of this article, clarified CDC has indicated guidance on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients may come in the near future.
“HHS leaders told us this fall that CDC is working on an initiative to expand SOGI data collection,” Cahill said. “We are hopeful that we will see guidance early in 2022. Key people at CDC, including Director Walensky, understand the importance of SOGI data collection given their long history of working on HIV prevention.”
In other issues related to LGBTQ data collection, there has been a history of states resisting federal mandates. The Trump administration, for example, rescinded guidance calling on states to collect information on whether foster youth identified as LGBTQ after complaints from states on the Obama-era process, much to the consternation of LGBTQ advocates who said the data was helpful.
The White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force has at least recognized the potential for enhancing LGBTQ data collection efforts. Last month, it published an implementation plan, calling for “an equity-centered approach to data collection, including sufficient funding to collect data for groups that are often left out of data collection (e.g….LGBTQIA+ people).”
The plan also calls for “fund[ing] activities to improve data collection…including tracking COVID-19 related outcomes for people of color and other underserved populations,” and specifically calls for the collection of LGBTQ data.
The importance of collecting LGBTQ data, Cahill said, is based on its potential use in public outreach, including efforts to recognize disparities in health population and to create messaging for outreach, including for populations that may be reluctant to take the vaccine.
“If we see a disparity, we can say: Why is that?” Cahill said. “We could do focus groups of the population — try to understand and then what kind of messages would reassure you and make you feel comfortable getting a vaccine, and we could push those messages out through public education campaigns led by state local health departments led by the federal government.”
The LGBTQ data, Cahill said, could be broken down further to determine if racial and ethnic disparities exist within the LGBTQ population, or whether LGBTQ people are likely to suffer from the disease in certain regions, such as the South.
“We have data showing that lesbian or bisexual women, and transgender people are less likely to be in preventive regular routine care for their health,” Cahill said. “And so if that’s true, there’s a good chance that they’re less likely to know where to get a vaccine, to have a medical professional they trust to talk to about it today.”
Among the leaders who are supportive, Cahill said, is Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health and the first openly transgender person confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a presidential appointment. Cahill said he raised the issue with her along with other officials at the Department of Health & Human Services three times in the last year.
In her previous role as Pennsylvania secretary of health, Levine led the way and made her state the first in the nation to set up an LGBTQ data collection system for COVID patients.
“So she definitely gets it, and I know she’s supportive of it, but we really need the CDC to act,” Cahill said.
Although the federal government has remained intransigent in taking action, Cahill said the situation has improved among states and counted five states — California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Nevada and Oregon — in addition to D.C. as among those that have elected to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity of COVID patients.
However, Cahill said even those data collection efforts are falling short because those jurisdictions have merely been public about collecting the data, but haven’t reported back anything yet.
“Only California has reported data publicly, and the data that they’re reporting is really just the completeness of the data,” Cahill said. “They’re not reporting the data itself…And they’re also just asking people who tests positive. So, if somebody says positive COVID in California, a contact tracer follows up with that individual and asks them a battery of questions, and among the questions that are asked are SOGI questions.”
As a result of these efforts, Cahill said, California has data on the LGBTQ status of COVID patients, but the data is overwhelmingly more complete for the gender identity of these patients rather than their sexual orientation. As of May 2021, California reported that they had sexual orientation data for 9.5 percent of individuals who had died from COVID and 16 percent of people who tested positive, but for gender identity, the data were 99.5 percent.
Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead
No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise
Despite having President Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, efforts to update federal civil rights laws to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act are all but dead as opponents of the measure have contorted it beyond recognition.
Political willpower is lacking to find a compromise that would be acceptable to enough Republican senators to end a filibuster on the bill — a tall order in any event — nor is there the willpower to force a vote on the Equality Act as opponents stoke fears about transgender kids in sports and not even unanimity in the Democratic caucus in favor of the bill is present, stakeholders who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said.
In fact, there are no imminent plans to hold a vote on the legislation even though Pride month is days away, which would be an opportune time for Congress to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community by holding a vote on the legislation.
If the Equality Act were to come up for a Senate vote in the next month, it would not have the support to pass. Continued assurances that bipartisan talks are continuing on the legislation have yielded no evidence of additional support, let alone the 10 Republicans needed to end a filibuster.
“I haven’t really heard an update either way, which is usually not good,” one Democratic insider said. “My understanding is that our side was entrenched in a no-compromise mindset and with [Sen. Joe] Manchin saying he didn’t like the bill, it doomed it this Congress. And the bullying of hundreds of trans athletes derailed our message and our arguments of why it was broadly needed.”
The only thing keeping the final nail from being hammered into the Equality Act’s coffin is the unwillingness of its supporters to admit defeat. Other stakeholders who spoke to the Blade continued to assert bipartisan talks are ongoing, strongly pushing back on any conclusion the legislation is dead.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Equality Act is “alive and well,” citing widespread public support he said includes “the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents and a growing number of communities across the country engaging and mobilizing every day in support of the legislation.”
“They understand the urgent need to pass this bill and stand up for LGBTQ people across our country,” David added. “As we engage with elected officials, we have confidence that Congress will listen to the voices of their constituents and continue fighting for the Equality Act through the lengthy legislative process. We will also continue our unprecedented campaign to grow the already-high public support for a popular bill that will save lives and make our country fairer and more equal for all. We will not stop until the Equality Act is passed.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, also signaled through a spokesperson work continues on the legislation, refusing to give up on expectations the legislation would soon become law.
“Sen. Merkley and his staff are in active discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to try to get this done,” McLennan said. “We definitely see it as a key priority that we expect to become law.”
A spokesperson Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had promised to force a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate on the day the U.S. House approved it earlier this year, pointed to a March 25 “Dear Colleague” letter in which he identified the Equality Act as one of several bills he’d bring up for a vote.
Despite any assurances, the hold up on the bill is apparent. Although the U.S. House approved the legislation earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t even reported out the bill yet to the floor in the aftermath of the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill in March. A Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide, however, disputed that inaction as evidence the Equality Act is dead in its tracks: “Bipartisan efforts on a path forward are ongoing.”
Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for inaction on the Equality Act, but with Manchin withholding his support for the legislation they can’t even count on the entirety of their caucus to vote “yes” if it came to the floor. Progressives continue to advocate an end to the filibuster to advance legislation Biden has promised as part of his agenda, but even if they were to overcome headwinds and dismantle the institution needing 60 votes to advance legislation, the Equality Act would likely not have majority support to win approval in the Senate with a 50-50 party split.
The office of Manchin, who has previously said he couldn’t support the Equality Act over concerns about public schools having to implement the transgender protections applying to sports and bathrooms, hasn’t responded to multiple requests this year from the Blade on the legislation and didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who declined to co-sponsor the Equality Act this year after having signed onto the legislation in the previous Congress, insisted through a spokesperson talks are still happening across the aisle despite the appearances the legislation is dead.
“There continues to be bipartisan support for passing a law that protects the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson. “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”
Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom, which continues to be litigated in the courts as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected any day now to issue a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to determine if foster care agencies can reject same-sex couples over religious objections.
For transgender Americans, who continue to report discrimination and violence at high rates, the absence of the Equality Act may be most keenly felt.
Mara Keisling, outgoing executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, disputed any notion the Equality Act is dead and insisted the legislation is “very much alive.”
“We remain optimistic despite misinformation from the opposition,” Keisling said. “NCTE and our movement partners are still working fruitfully on the Equality Act with senators. In fact, we are gaining momentum with all the field organizing we’re doing, like phone banking constituents to call their senators. Legislating takes time. Nothing ever gets through Congress quickly. We expect to see a vote during this Congress, and we are hopeful we can win.”
But one Democratic source said calls to members of Congress against the Equality Act, apparently coordinated by groups like the Heritage Foundation, have has outnumbered calls in favor of it by a substantial margin, with a particular emphasis on Manchin.
No stories are present in the media about same-sex couples being kicked out of a restaurant for holding hands or transgender people for using the restroom consistent with their gender identity, which would be perfectly legal in 25 states thanks to the patchwork of civil rights laws throughout the United States and inadequate protections under federal law.
Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the American Unity Fund, which has bolstered the Republican-led Fairness for All Act as an alternative to the Equality Act, said he continues to believe the votes are present for a compromise form of the bill.
“I know for a fact there is a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” Deaton said. “There is interest on both sides of the aisle in getting something done this Congress.”
Deaton, however, didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on what evidence exists of agreeing on this compromise.
Biden has already missed the goal he campaigned on in the 2020 election to sign the Equality Act into law within his first 100 days in office. Although Biden renewed his call to pass the legislation in his speech to Congress last month, as things stand now that appears to be a goal he won’t realize for the remainder of this Congress.
Nor has the Biden administration made the Equality Act an issue for top officials within the administration as it pushes for an infrastructure package as a top priority. One Democratic insider said Louisa Terrell, legislative affairs director for the White House, delegated work on the Equality Act to a deputy as opposed to handling it herself.
To be sure, Biden has demonstrated support for the LGBTQ community through executive action at an unprecedented rate, signing an executive order on day one ordering federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the fullest extent possible and dismantling former President Trump’s transgender military ban. Biden also made historic LGBTQ appointments with the confirmation of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.
A White House spokesperson insisted Biden’s team across the board remains committed to the Equality Act, pointing to his remarks to Congress.
“President Biden has urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he can sign it into law and provide long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans, and he remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “The White House and its entire legislative team remains in ongoing and close coordination with organizations, leaders, members of Congress, including the Equality Caucus, and staff to ensure we are working across the aisle to push the Equality Act forward.”
But at least in the near-term, that progress will fall short of fulfilling the promise of updating federal civil rights law with the Equality Act, which will mean LGBTQ people won’t be able to rely on those protections when faced with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
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