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Gay History – 1974: The Equality Act Introduced to Congress and We Are Still Waiting

44 Years and counting and still no LGBT Federal Civil Rights

In 1974, gay activists in New York City were fighting to pass a city-wide gay rights ordinance. The late NY Representative to Congress Bella Abzug (pictured above), inspired by the emergence of the first national gay rights organization, the newly formed National Gay Task Force (NGTF), had the idea to circumvent local homophobes by introducing federal legislation that would, give gays and lesbians full equality under the law. Enlisting the co-sponsorship of Ed Koch (D-NY), the closeted New York Congressman who would go on to become the mayor of New York City, Abzug courageously introduced the Equality Act on May 14th of 1974 — the first piece of federal legislation to address discrimination based on sexual orientation. The act would amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, or sexual orientation in public accommodations, public facilities, public education, federally assisted programs, housing, and financial services. Anticipating contemporary “hate crime” legislation, the act further stipulated penalties for anyone who willfully injured, intimidated, or interfered with a person on the basis of sex, marital status, or sexual orientation and empowered the U.S. Attorney General to take civil action against such discrimination

Of course it failed.

In 1975, the National Gay Task Force urged Abzug and Koch to try again. This time, the pair got twenty-four members of Congress (including themselves) to co-sponsor their proposed legislation: the Civil Rights Amendment of 1975. Bruce Voeller, director of the NGTF, along with NGTF national coordinator Nathalie Rockhill, organized a press conference on Capitol Hill, inviting prestigious organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women (NOW), to attend. Rockhill was slated to introduce Congresswoman Abzug, who would then explain the bill to the press. The Civil Rights Amendment of 1975, Abzug explained as she spoke into the microphone, would extend the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 to protect gays and lesbians in all of the areas covered by the proposed Equality Act of 1974; and like the Equality Act, the amendment would penalize anyone who discriminated against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation.

And once again the bill did not pass.

Beginning in the 1990s, Congressional efforts shifted to the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). More narrow in scope than the Equality Act, ENDA would prohibit discrimination in hiring practices and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and, in some versions of the bill, gender identity without amending the Civil Rights Act. In 1994, ENDA was introduced in the House by Congressman Gerry Studds (D-MA) and in the Senate by Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Both times, the bill died in committee.

ENDA was introduced in every Congress since 1994 except the 109th. The bill gained its best chance at passing after the Democratic Party gained the majority after twelve years of Republican majorities in the 2006 midterm elections. In 2007, gender identity protections were added to the legislation for the first time. Some sponsors believed that even with a Democratic majority, ENDA did not have enough votes to pass the House of Representatives with transgender inclusion and it was dropped the bill, it was the closest that the bill ever got to passing,  ENDA passed the House and then died in the Senate. President George W. Bush threatened to veto the measure.

 A trans-inclusive ENDA was again introduced again in 2009 by Frank in the House and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in the Senate, only to die in each chamber’s respective committee.

ENDA was introduced twice more by Merkley: in 2011, where it again stalled in committee and in 2013, where it passed the Senate with bipartisan support — including the backing of President Barack Obama — in a 64–32 vote only to then die in the Republican controlled House.

43 years later the Equality Act was reborn in 2017. This version, introduced on May 2nd, 2017, in the House by Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) and in the Senate by Jeff Merkley, would go back to amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Jury Selection and Services Act, and laws regarding employment with the federal government to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. Discrimination in employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service would thus be prohibited. The bill would also authorize the Department of Justice to bring civil action on the basis of complaints made in response to such discrimination. Though the bill has yet to be referred to committee, the Equality Act of 2017 was introduced with bipartisan support and a total of 241 co-sponsors.

Now once again the Equality Act sits waiting and gathering dust while LGBT Americans in 31 states have no civil protections at all.

44 years later.

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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