With Democrats Winning the House, LGBT Advocates Have Great Expectations

After a disappointing election night in 2016 and two years of President Trump in the White House, Democrats came back with an important win Tuesday night and were projected to win control of the U.S. House — a victory celebrated by LGBT rights supporters eager to thwart the administration and advance equality measures.

NBC News and Fox News declared at late Tuesday night Democrats would win enough seats on Election Day to take control of the House, marking the first time since 2008 Democrats won a majority of seats in the chamber. Democrats needed a net gain of 23 seats to win control of the House, but the early call means they could win significantly more as the night progresses.

Meanwhile, CNN declared the Senate would remain in Republicans hands after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declared the winner against a Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke. Despite an expected "blue" wave, political observers expected Republicans to retain control of the Senate.

Topping the list for what LGBT rights supporters were expecting from the House with Democrats in control was oversight of the Trump administration's anti-LGBT policies and advancement of the Equality Act.

Sarah McBride, a transgender advocate and spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, identified the Equality Act as a top priority with Democrats finally in control of the House.

"Voters across the country have helped to pull the emergency brake on the hateful agenda of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, and with a pro-equality majority in the U.S. House and pro-equality leadership in the U.S. Senate, we're hopeful that we can see the Equality Act pass through the chamber this Congress," McBride said. "That would send an important message that the U.S. House of Representatives believes that LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination throughout daily life."

Although the Equality Act, which would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to bar anti-LGBT discrimination, is unlikely to become law if Democrats control only one chamber of Congress and President Trump is in the White House, McBride said movement in one chamber would be beneficial.

"It would help build momentum for us to pass the Equality Act and have it signed into law by a pro-equality president when a pro-equality president is elected into office in 2020," McBride said. "It would help to build momentum for state legislatures and more city councils to pass inclusive non-discrimination protections."

Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said legislation to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in Congress has languished for decades and the time has come for action.

"Given that so many LGBTQ people and their families face discrimination in multiple areas of their lives, it is well past time for a federal bill to provide protections, so we will certainly continue working with members of the House to pass federal legislation, to push for passage of the Equality Act and ensure that our community members are finally protected," Carey said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled the Equality Act would be a personal priority and she'd assign the legislation a low bill number between 1 and 10 designating the legislation a top priority with Democrats in control of the House.

In terms of the expected timing from LGBT advocates for movement on the Equality Act, the general consensus was as soon as possible, although no specific timeframe was offered.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called the Equality Act the "centerpiece bill" for the LGBT community and said timing for movement should be "sooner rather than later," but didn't offer a specific deadline.

Asked when she expects to see movement from the House on the Equality Act, Carey replied, "Yesterday."

"We will continue to push for the Equality Act very early on in this next session," Carey said. "It is past time. We've been having this conversation for decades starting really in the 1970s when the first piece of legislation was introduced, but certainly into ENDA, and now the full Equality Act. But it is just well past time for our community to have protections."

But oversight of the Trump administration's anti-LGBT policies — such as the transgender military ban, efforts to define laws against sex discrimination to exclude LGBT people and "religious freedom" laws that would enable anti-LGBT discrimination — was also high on the list of priorities for LGBT rights supporters.

Keisling said oversight and accountability of the Trump administration are "by far the most important things" in the next Congress.

"Finally, somebody will be holding President Trump accountable for all his lawless actions," Keisling said. "So when the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education says it will no longer enforce federal civil rights laws, somebody can hold them accountable. Somebody can hold hearings, somebody can subpoena their records to find out why they're doing."

Carey expressed a similar sentiment about the importance of congressional oversight under the Trump administration.

"We're expecting them to step up," Carey said. "They should be using their authority to conduct hearings and investigations to stand up for the American people to ensure that this administration is held accountable. We have an unprecedented lack of transparency, corruption and self-serving actions from this administration, so we expect the House to step up and stand by the American people."

Carey also said her organization will stand with the House in efforts to preserve the Affordable Care Act, including protections for patients with pre-existing conditions, and efforts to use religious freedom "to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others."

The Equality Act wasn't the only piece of legislation important to LGBT rights supporters. Other bills not as high profile but still important to LGBT people were also mentioned.

For the transgender community, Keisling identified the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in adoption, and the Screening with Dignity Act, which would enhance policies at the Transportation Security Administration for transgender passengers.

Carey said she wants to see companion legislation in the House for the Census Equality Act, which would add questions to the U.S. Census allowing respondents to identify their sexual orientation and gender identity. Currently, a version of the legislation introduced by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) remains pending in the Senate.

"We know that when our community isn't counted through the U.S. Census and other federal surveys that it means that valuable and much-needed programming in federal funding is not directed to the needs of our community," Carey said.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Gay Media Association.