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Fifty Years After Stonewall, Many States Still Lack LGBTQ Protections

Pride is a national celebration of how far the fight for queer rights has come, but in most of the U.S., there is still a long way to go.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

With New York City’s West Village looking as though someone dropped a leaflet bomb filled with rainbows, it’s hard to ignore the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, recognized as a seminal moment for the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for queer rights. Organizers expect the New York City Pride March, which commemorates the uprising, to be the largest in history, with 4 million queer people filling the streets of Manhattan.

Pride has long occasioned debates about the extent to which queers should be celebrating or still rioting, and has exposed the divide between those in the community with more privilege and those with less. But with the advent of marriage equality in 2015, this divide has become a chasm.

In the Northeast, along the West Coast, and in a couple of states in the Midwest, LGBTQ people can not only get married, they enjoy, by and large, standing equal to those of their straight counterparts. In these places, it is against the law to fire someone for being queer, deny them a lease, kick them out of a home, or refuse them service at a business just because of sexual preference or gender identity. But this is not the case in 30 states, where, 50 years since Stonewall, protections against the most basic forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination simply don’t exist.

They don’t exist in Missouri, where Mary Walsh worked in the telecommunications industry for 30 years before retiring with her wife, Bev. The couple, who married in 2009, thought they had found the perfect place to spend the rest of their lives together when they came across Friendship Village, a retirement community in St. Louis. But after sending in their deposit, the facility told them they could not move in because they were a same-sex couple.

“I thought we had finally reached a point in our lives when we wouldn’t have to worry about discrimination anymore.” Walsh wrote in a recent op-ed in USA Today.

In Michigan, a pediatrician refused to treat lesbian couple Krista and Jamie Contreras’s six-year-old, Bay (the doctor wouldn’t even come into the office that day). In Georgia, Gerald Bostock was fired from his job as a child-welfare services coordinator after his employer found out he was a member of an LGBTQ softball league.

Neither Missouri, Michigan, nor Georgia has state laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Such protections don’t exist at the federal level, either. For decades, advocates of queer rights have tried and failed to pass national legislation to add discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to existing civil-rights laws. They came closest in May of this year, when the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act. But with the Senate and White House controlled by Republicans, the bill will not advance further this session.

During the Obama administration, queer people in states without specific LGBTQ-rights laws garnered limited protections when then–Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo extending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—which forbids discrimination “on the basis of sex”—to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. This empowered federal agencies that enforce anti-discrimination laws to offer some recourse to LGBTQ people who’ve been fired, kicked out of their homes, or refused service at a business because of who they are.

Under the Trump administration, however, these agencies have, one by one, reversed course. Upon taking over the Justice Department in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions promptly threw out the Obama-era rule. Other federal agencies have followed suit. In May, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces laws against discrimination in housing, announced it was dispensing with the guidance, allowing transgender people to be kicked out of homeless shelters. Health and Human Services, which enforces protections against discrimination in health care, announced it would do the same a few days later, allowing health care providers and federally funded adoption agencies to turn away queer patients. Only the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces workplace discrimination laws, continues to hold that Title VII covers LGBTQ people.

Many federal courts have agreed with the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title VII, ruling in favor of plaintiffs who have been fired, evicted, or turned away at the doctor’s office because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But queer Americans may not get sympathy from federal jurists for much longer. In April, the Supreme Court announced it would take up the Title VII question, reviewing three cases in which employees were fired for being gay or transgender.

The legal arguments supporting the EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII are backed by decades of Supreme Court precedent and readings of the law favored by right-wing legal scholars. But many LGBTQ-rights supporters expect the court’s increasingly ideological and hyper-partisan conservative majority to rule that federal law does not, in fact, prohibit an employer from firing a worker for being gay or transgender. Doing so would upend the entire body of anti-discrimination law that protects, for instance, women from sexual harassment in the workplace—but the Trump Court has already shown a willingness to take a battering ram to established law on workers’ and voting rights to serve its ideological goals.

One of the reasons federal civil-rights protections for queer people have been so difficult to enact is that 80 percent of Americans think they already have them. This is partially because most—72 percent—think it should be the rule, but also because laws against discrimination would seem a logical precursor to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

What’s more, the media have been too busy dissecting Trump’s every tweet-storm and tirade to take note of his administration’s systematic attacks on the LGBTQ community. When the Trump administration rolled back LGBTQ rights across the federal government in May, most of the major TV networks—NBC, CBS, ABC, and MSNBC—ignored the stories completely, according to an investigation by liberal press watchdog Media Matters. CNN and Fox News allocated a meager eleven minutes. CNN included a single voice from the community—a trans person talking about a recent Gillette commercial—in its six segments on the Trump rollback. Fox’s coverage featured Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who said that department’s rule allowing homeless shelters to reject transgender people was “being fair to everyone.”

In this context, the jubilant Stonewall tributes about to crescendo across the country seem like a missed opportunity. Along with the parades and rainbow-festooned marketing, this could be an excellent time to educate the public about continued discrimination. In New York, San Francisco, or Chicago, revelers can celebrate knowing that they enjoy de jure, if not de facto, equality under the law. In most of the country, however, pride could still come with a price.