The Equality Act has languished in McConnell’s Senate but sponsor says it’s still historic

Cicilline believes LGBTQ rights will come up in campaign as an important issue

From left, Bobby Berk, Tan France, Jonathan Van Ness and Antoni Porowski, from the Netflix series “Queer Eye,’ are seen in the Capitol in April 2019 after meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to advocate the Equality Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Bobby Berk, Tan France, Jonathan Van Ness and Antoni Porowski, from the Netflix series “Queer Eye,’ are seen in the Capitol in April 2019 after meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to advocate the Equality Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 1, 2020 at 11:53am, Updated at 11:53am

The Equality Act is no closer to becoming law in June 2020 during Pride Month and more than a year after it got a vote in the House, but its sponsor, Rep. David Cicilline, still believes its passage was a historic moment for LGBTQ rights in the United States.

“This is a long struggle for civil rights for our community,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “And the passage by the House in the early days of the Congress, the new House majority, is an extraordinarily important step in this journey.”

The legislation, which would broaden the definition of protected classes to include sexual orientation and gender identity, was a top priority for the new Democratic majority. It got support from eight Republicans when it passed, 236-173, in May 2019 amid a tense, partisan debate. And it’s expected to reappear as an issue on the campaign trail this year.

[These 8 Republicans voted for the Equality Act]

Cicilline, one of seven openly gay members of the House who all co-chair the LGBT Equality Caucus, said the bill indicates just how much progress the country has made in such a short time.

“When this bill was introduced five years ago, we couldn’t get so much as a hearing, let alone have a floor vote,” he said.

The GOP-controlled Senate has not taken up the bill, like many other measures that House Democrats have championed and passed.

“The majority leader made it clear that he had no intention of taking up this bill, and that’s disappointing,” Cicilline said, adding that he believes the bill would pass if it were to get a vote on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The legislation would amend the Civil Rights Act to prevent discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in places such as public facilities, housing, schools and the workplace.

It would also allow the Justice Department to intervene in equal protection actions in federal court on account of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill would also prohibit an individual from being denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, locker room or dressing room in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.

It drew wide interest from a range of high-profile LGBTQ individuals, as well as advocates such as Taylor Swift, who organized a Change.org petition urging the Senate to pass it. High-profile Democratic signatories included Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

[The ‘Queer Eye’ guys just met with Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez on Capitol Hill]

Eighty percent of the “Queer Eye” quintet made an appearance in April 2019 on Capitol Hill to champion the bill as well. The Netflix stars’ visit caused a stir as Bobby Berk, Tan France, Jonathan Van Ness and Antoni Porowski got a Capitol tour.

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a release last month called the legislation “transformative” and criticized McConnell’s inaction on the bill.

Cicilline, a member of House leadership who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said he expects the bill and other top Democratic priorities ignored by the Senate to become election issues.

Cicilline also co-chairs the Equality PAC with Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., which supports LGBTQ candidates or strong allies. The PAC raised more than $2.6 million since the beginning of 2019 and has contributed $788,000 to other candidates and committees.

It spent an additional $131,000 on direct mail in support of Democrat Georgette Gomez, who is running for the seat Democratic Rep. Susan A. Davis is giving up in California’s 53rd District. Gomez was the first LGBTQ Latina elected San Diego City Council president, according to her campaign website.

Cicilline expressed confidence that November’s election would yield a new crop of politicians willing to pass the Equality Act.

“It’s a question of Congress catching up with the American people, who already understand that discrimination is wrong, and I have no doubt that the Equality Act will become the law of the land,” he said. “The only question is how quickly we can get it enacted.”