LGBTQ Rights Advances Possible In Several States

Brooklyn State Senator-Elect Andrew Gounardes is one of the new Democrats going to Albany with a mandate to move on LGBTQ rights.
DANIEL J. MARINO/ BROOKLYN BOROUGH PRESIDENT’S OFFICE

The results of November’s elections were most visible at the federal level, but a number of state legislatures are now in a position to potentially pass LGBTQ rights bills in the coming year.

A Freedom for All Americans (FFAA) report has identified New York as one of four states where LGBTQ-based legislative advances are possible, along with Virginia, Florida, and Ohio. Georgia and Texas, meanwhile, are the states advocates expect to be on the defensive against Republican efforts to scale back LGBTQ rights.

New York, according to FFAA, is best poised to see significant progress, with the Senate shifting from a 32-31 Republican advantage prior to November 6 to a 39-24 Democratic advantage come January. The long-stalled Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which has passed the State Assembly, long a Democratic stronghold, 10 times since 2008, will be a priority, along with a prohibition on so-called conversion therapy being practiced on minors and a repeal of the state’s current ban on gestational surrogacy, an important tool for same-sex couples who choose to have children.

Andy Marra, the new executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Gay City News that she is looking forward to seeing the State Senate take up GENDA and “finally pass legislation that upholds our basic rights.”

“For fifteen years, transgender and gender non-conforming New Yorkers have waited to see comprehensive non-discrimination protections codified into state law,” Marra said.

In Ohio, the focus is on the Ohio Fairness Act (OFA), or HB 160, which would establish sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as protected classes when it comes to housing, employment, and public service.

Grant Stancliff, who is the communications director for Equality Ohio, the state’s LGBTQ lobby group, told Gay City News that advocates are focusing on the bill in the legislative cycle beginning in January. The outlook for OFA, however, isn’t particularly promising because Republicans will hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature as well as retaining the governor’s mansion. And although LGBTQ rights initiatives have advanced in cities across Ohio, that’s only partial progress and merely a stepping stone toward statewide protections.

“Ohio’s flyover country, but we have urban cores –– Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton are all seen as refuges for LGBTQ people,” Stancliff said. “But you shouldn’t have to move just because you grew up in a rural area.”

Advocates are using business interests as a way to convince Republicans to support the OFA. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce and Ohio Business Competes — a coalition of more than 500 businesses — have both endorsed the legislation, and J. Bennett Guess, the executive director of ACLU of Ohio, told Gay City News that holding OFA back could turn off businesses that otherwise would like to expand into the state.

“Pro-business Republicans are beginning to learn that until we become a state that is truly welcoming, we are not going to have that kind of business success,” he said.

The other ray of hope is in Ohio’s court of public opinion, where Guess said Republicans felt the pressure after more than 150 people testified at the first-ever hearing on the bill earlier this year. So many people showed up that overflow rooms were required.

“To be honest, the path forward is difficult, but we also know that the testimony that has been provided before the House committee did change hearts and minds in many of our Republican lawmakers, including the chair of the committee,” Guess said.

In Virginia, the GOP-controlled Senate has passed a pair nondiscrimination bills three straight years and the bills have gained the backing of both Republicans and Democrats in the House of Delegates. However, the House, which has a one-vote Republican majority, has not taken up the bills, which would protect people in public employment and housing — and advocates are hoping that comes in 2019.

Equality Virginia, an advocacy organization seeking equality for LGBTQ people in that state, did not return a request for comment on the status of the bills and the prospect for passage in the next legislative session.

A bill in Florida would amend the state’s civil rights laws to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Known as the Competitive Workforce Act, the bill has enjoyed bipartisan support in the State Senate and House of Representatives. Like in Ohio, its fate could be tied to business interests: Florida Competes, a statewide coalition consisting of 450 businesses, has publicly supported the legislation.

In Georgia, Governor-Elect Brian Kemp has long vowed to support “religious freedom” legislation that resembles a bill that was vetoed by outgoing Governor Nathan Deal in 2016. Most recently, Senate Bill 375 — which would have allowed adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples — passed the State Senate but failed to get a hearing in the House. Whether another bill of its kind will come to fruition in the near future is unclear, but there is little opportunity for LGBTQ advances in Florida.

There is also not much hope for progress in Texas, where the LGBTQ community is facing an uphill battle after Republicans maintained their grip on both chambers of the state legislature in addition to the governor’s office.

Lawmakers were unsuccessful in their attempts to pass a “bathroom bill” restricting access to public restrooms for transgender people earlier this year amid an onslaught of criticism from businesses, faith leaders, advocates, and others. Governor Greg Abbott said in October that he is abandoning his effort to push for such a bill, but has not ruled out the possibility of signing one should it land on his desk.

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