Unequal Protections

By April 30, 2019 No Comments

By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Social Justice Columnist

Last week the US Supreme Court announced it would be hearing three different cases that will determine if federal anti-discrimination laws protect people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, particularly in the workplace.

If this would have happened with a pre-Gorsuch and Kavanaugh SCOTUS we would be celebrating right now. Alas, there currently aren’t any parties being planned or champagne bottles being popped in anticipation of these cases.

I’m personally lighting some candles and praying that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes her vitamins and Justice John Roberts finds his conscience.

While thinking about this I remembered an incident I’ve tried not to dwell on, but it’s clear in my mind again. In 2013, I had recently moved back to Pittsburgh and was paying my bills with a corporate job while I searched for something in the do-goodery field. I settled into my new work environment seamlessly, developing the camaraderie coworkers develop when spending everyday together; sharing chats about pop culture, politics and inside jokes. I felt comfortable talking about my personal life, if not a little bit vaguely, especially when it came to dating.

One day I slipped up with my neutral pronoun gymnastics when I mentioned the person I was dating and that I was going to visit her for the weekend. Cue the sound of a record screeching, at least that’s how I remember it. My coworkers were surprised because I didn’t “look gay” and had heard me talk about an ex-boyfriend before.

This led to one of the most awkward conversations of my professional life. “It’s either/or. You like one or the other; you can’t like both… I don’t believe bisexuality exists,” my boss said. Yet here I was, standing before her. My bisexuality making me as unbelievable as the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and a damn unicorn rolled into one.

I tried to explain my queerness to a woman who just didn’t get it. “I can be someone who has dated a man before and is now dating a woman… I’m, you know, doing it right now.” As wild as this sounds, I didn’t complain about this to our HR department at the time because I didn’t want to have to come out to someone else and relive this embarrassing, awkward experience or worse, talk to them and lose my job.

In May 2014, Pennsylvania allowed same sex couples to marry after a ruling by a federal court judge against our 1996 gay marriage ban. Miraculously, PA was ahead of 13 other states in this respect. Then, in June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right that extends to same sex couples under the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Yay! Gay rights! We did it! Rainbows and glitter for everyone! Just kidding. Because in all 50 states, you could marry a same-sex partner on Sunday, and in 35 of them, get fired on Monday for exercising your constitutional rights.

For years, the issue that dominated the mainstream discussion around gay rights was marriage equality. A host of issues contributed to this, including the palatability of  the “love is love” message and marriage being an assimilation into heteronormative culture which made gay folks seem less threatening. Of course, this leaves out the less affluent and more marginalized members of the queer community. After the fight for marriage equality, in nearly 30 states there are no explicit protections for employment, housing, and public accommodations because of someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

A small handful of states have extended their discrimination laws to explicitly cover LGBT folks, but 30 still have not. Thankfully in 2018 the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission stepped up and ruled that LGBTQ folks fall under the list of protected groups under the law. However, the Republican-controlled state legislature has blocked laws in the past several years specifically meant to prevent LGBTQ individuals from facing discrimination. In fact, many Republican members of the house contend the HRC’s opinion is “overreaching.” But before the HRC decision, it was unable to even take cases regarding LGBTQ discrimination.

Federally speaking, things are murky at best when it comes to SCOTUS. When it comes to the executive branch, President Trump has stacked his cabinet with people who are openly hostile to the queer community, and there is a laundry list of terrible policies that have been rolled out as a result. Then of course there is Vice President Mike Pence. The only issue that gets this dude more hot and bothered than gay people is the idea of women having access to quality reproductive care.

 As dire as all of this seems, there is a glimmer of hope with the legislative branch. Last month Congress and the Senate introduced the Equality Act which would expand the rights outlined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to LGBT folks. Additionally the ACLU said in a press release, “The Equality Act also clarifies that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) cannot be used in civil rights contexts, prohibiting religious liberty — which is a core American value — from being used as a license to discriminate.” In light of SCOTUS taking on the suite of cases addressing these same issues, it is even more imperative that these bills become law. An iteration of this bill was first introduced in 2015 but failed.  Because of the gains made in the November 2018 elections, it’s a different scenario this time. There are 241 cosponsors for the bill in the House and 47 in the Senate, which is unprecedented for a bill that didn’t move four years ago. There is likely to be a vote in the House Judiciary Committee in the next week, so it’s important to call your Congressperson and urge them to support this.

 After you’ve called your representative, I invite you light your own candle and say a chant or two for RBG’s health. If you’re still frustrated at our state of affairs and want to do something donate here:

Sisters Pgh: A local organization that offers outreach, accurate trans/nonbinary education, advocacy, and emergency sheltering for trans/nonbinary youth and adults, with the primary goal of establishing permanent low income housing for people transitioning out of emergency shelters.

LGBT Victory Fund: National organization dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBTQ officials at all levels of government.

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