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Senator Jeff Merkley Introduces the Equality Act of 2017

On May 2, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced Americans to the Equality Act. What is that? Who does it affect? What happens now?

By Olivia Wickstrom May 10, 2017

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Senator Jeff Merkley introduces the Equality Act of 2017. 

In 2013, Portland resident Shane began his transition from female to male. This transition included a shift in identity, gender, name—and, somewhat coincidentally, employment. Shane decided to stay “closeted” to his new employer, but remaining closeted presented challenges in getting hired. “All of my job references are in my prior name,” he explained. This meant that Shane had to either “out himself” to his employer in order to clarify, or give no references at all.

Shane ultimately chose the latter because currently, outing yourself to an employer isn’t always easy or safe for LGBTQ individuals. Just ask Georgia Carter, the transgender KFC employee who was fired from a Virginia location because management was “not sure which bathroom she could use.” Or Tyler McCubbin, the Iowa resident that had a teaching offer revoked when school officials “saw on social media that he was in a same-sex relationship.”

With the Equality Act of 2017—introduced by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline—these actions would not only be unethical, they would be illegal. The Equality Act has three contentions:

  • Add gender identity and sexual orientation to “protected classes” (race, religion, ancestry, etc.), so LGBTQ Americans would receive “full, federal non-discrimination equality.”
  • Ban discrimination in jury service, housing, employment, federal funding, access to credit, and public accommodations.
  • “Add protections against sex discrimination in parts of anti-discrimination laws where these protections had not been included previously.”
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A protestor holds a sign promoting transgender rights. 

Senator Merkley presented the bill on May 2 in Washington, DC, stating: “When it comes to members of our LGBTQ community, there’s no question that our nation has made significant strides forward. In just the past few years we have seen the end of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and same sex marriage recognized by the Supreme Court, but we have so far to go.” He then reminded the audience that 78 percent of the transgender community experiences workplace harassment, and that only 20 states have laws protecting LGBT folks against discrimination. 

The bill, which is supported by 46 Democratic Senators and a record-breaking 194 members of the House, is a huge step forward for America's LGBTQ community. But in order for the Equality Act to become constitutional, President Trump needs to approve. This is the same president who, just last week, signed a religious liberty order allowing political endorsements by religious organizations. In DC, Senators supporting the Equality Act seemed to be mindful of this looming reality, but remain positive nonetheless. In response to an audience question, Congressman Cicilline stated: “We certainly welcome the support of the president… I don’t know if that is his current position, but we have introduced the bill today and we are going to work hard to pass it in the House and the Senate. And when we achieve that, we fully expect a move to do all that we can to make sure that the president signs it.”

When we reached out to Senator Merkley’s office regarding the bill, they told us: “Senator Merkley encourages people to engage with their Senators and members of Congress to ask them to support the bill. The Senator encourages his colleagues, and everyone, not to rest until the vision of equality and opportunity is achieved.”

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