On the road to full equality
Jan. 31 was a rainbow day for LGBT equality. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) welcomed transgender identifying boys into the Cub and Boy Scouts and the Trump administration announced that it would leave in place President Obama’s executive order that required federal contractors to provide nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fifty years ago, gay sex was a crime in almost all states. With an easily obtained search warrant, police could knock down bedroom doors of consenting adults and arrest them for a felony. Classified as mentally ill, gays were subjected to chemical castration, electric shock therapy, mental institutionalization and lobotomies. Eisenhower Executive Order 10450 prohibited the government from employing gays and lesbians as sexual perverts in the federal civilian and military workforce.
Like most institutions, the BSA resisted change. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court in Dale v BSA decided that the Boy Scouts was a private organization and not subject to New Jersey’s nondiscrimination laws. While the case brought by Eagle Scout James Dale was a loss, it ignited activism. Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and straight son of two lesbian mothers founded Scouts for Equality and was joined by Eagle Scouts and others, who advocated for change. Corporations, cities and donors withheld support. In 2013, the BSA admitted gay youth followed two years later by gay troop leaders and employees.
In 2012, few would have believed that in this decade the BSA would welcome transgender youth. That change occurred after eight-year-old transgender scout Joe Malonado was expelled when his troop’s leader learned that Joe was born a girl. Without a lobbying campaign, the BSA promptly changed its policy.
Likewise unexpected, the White House announced that President Trump would keep in place the Obama order that provides workplace protections for an estimated one million LGBT Americans working for federal contractors.
Since 1994, the LGBT community has sought to amend the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2007, the House of Representatives by a vote of 235-184 passed ENDA with Republican supporters who included then Congressman and now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. In 2013, ENDA passed the Senate with bipartisan support including Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose son is gay.
Trump stated in the campaign that transgender Americans could use whichever bathroom in Trump properties they preferred and that his company did not discriminate in the workplace. While LGBT activists believed that there was little chance of enacting ENDA with a Republican president and Congress, the opposite may be the case. If again passed in the House and Senate but in the same congressional session, it could become part of President Trump’s legacy.
Gays serve in our military and more than 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including Exxon Mobil, provide sexual orientation protection. While ENDA legislation is opposed by Vice President Pence, it has the expected support of the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump.
For many, it seems that so much has been achieved so quickly especially set against centuries of repression. The Annual Reminders at Independence Hall each July 4 from 1965 to 1969 laid the groundwork when Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the movement’s father and mother, strategically pinned aspirations to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution’s promise of individual liberty and equality.
The AIDS crisis forced people to come out, protest and form communal organizations. Each person who came out changed stereotypes, opened hearts and encouraged others to leave the stifling closet.
MTV with its “Real World” was among the first of what became a cascade of LGBT people and representation in television and movies. Admired by their fellow citizens, Martina Navratilova, Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Cook and Anderson Cooper, among an avalanche of well-known people, announced their sexual orientation.
While the LGBT community had been brutalized and vilified, it was Gandhian and Dr. King-like in its response. Other than the 1969 Stonewall riots, the movement has been non-violent and steadfast in its belief in democracy and the nation’s founding promise.
While legislation has lagged, the courts have been a bastion in providing constitutional rights including decriminalization and same-sex marriage. But it is in the court of public opinion where the movement has had great success. As reflected by the BSA and a Republican president, with increasingly broad support LGBT Americans are on the arc that bends toward liberty and equality.
Malcolm Lazin is executive director of the Equality Forum and LGBT History Month.