Out Officials Urge LGBTQ Rights Push in Congress

Senator Chuck Schumer addressing the 2017 New York City Human Rights Campaign dinner.
JEFFREY HOLMES/HRC

Ahead of the new legislative season in January, 152 out LGBTQ elected officials nationwide have penned a letter addressed to members of Congress seeking action on four main initiatives to advance queer rights.

The group of officials, ranging from state legislators to local school board members, are calling on federal lawmakers to pass the Equality Act, utilize stepped-up measures to eradicate HIV/ AIDS, protect the transgender community, and uphold and improve the rights of LGBTQ asylum seekers.

The letter comes on the heels of the Democrats’ major gains in the House of Representatives, signaling a new wave of momentum that could rally support for measures that have stalled under Republicans control of both chambers of Congress. LGBTQ candidates also enjoyed strong showings at the polls, including in Arizona, where candidate Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual US senator and the state’s first Democratic senator in a quarter century, and Colorado, which elected the nation’s first gay governor, Jared Polis.

The letter, which will formally be delivered to members of Congress in early January, was drafted in a closed-door meeting held by elected officials at the LGBTQ Victory Institute’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference on December 6. The Victory Fund works to elect out LGBTQ candidates for public office.

The Equality Act, which has had virtually no support from Republicans since it was first proposed in 2015, would broaden nondiscrimination protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to encompass sexual orientation and gender identity.

Officials are also seeking to establish a Congressional Advisory Commission on HIV/ AIDS, push for a “Getting to Zero” goal focused on ending the epidemic entirely, and place an emphasis on reducing racial disparities in both the diagnoses of HIV and the way it is treated.

The third request, pertaining to transgender rights, is largely focused on slowing President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on that community. The Trump administration’s plan to ban transgender people from the military and its policy to alter the federal definition of gender — as an unchangeable trait established at birth — “can have a traumatic effect, leaving people exposed and their rights revoked,” the letter says.

The letter’s signers are also asking Congress to block efforts that are making it more difficult for LGBTQ and intersex people to apply for asylum and to make sure that queer rights “are a cornerstone of our foreign policy at the United Nations and throughout the world.”

A representative from the Victory Institute told Gay City News that openly LGBTQ governors and members of Congress were asked to sign the letter, but they had not responded by the time it was sent out to members of the media.

Congressmembers David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who co-chair the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, could not be reached for comment. Cicilline introduced the Equality Act in the House of Representatives in 2015 and again in 2017.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York’s senior senator, was encouraged by the letter and told Gay City News that he is “excited by new members of the LGBTQ community elected to Congress.”

“I look forward to working with them to pass this legislative agenda, protect the LGBTQ community from regressive administration policies, and restore the United States to the vanguard of protecting human rights across the globe,” Schumer said.

New York Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, who will assume the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee in January, noted that it is “vital” for voices in the LGBTQ community to be heard in Congress.

“We need to advance all of these measures and more in order to not only turn back the ongoing assault on LGBT civil rights, but to ensure equality in all aspects of our lives,” he said.

Efforts to reach House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who will become speaker in January, and Congressmember Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn — just elected Democratic Caucus chair, the fifth-ranking leadership post — were unsuccessful.

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