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On LGBT Rights, the Ball is in Congress's Court

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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April 28, 2010

Earlier this month, President Obama asked the Department of Health and Human Services to order all hospitals that participate in Medicaid and Medicare to allow patients to designate who shall be allowed to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf. This is one of the most pro-LGBT rights policies so far adopted by the Obama administration. Another important advancement was the decision to explicitly ban employment discrimination in federal jobs based on gender identity. While there have been important and meaningful changes announced since the start of President Obama’s administration for the LGBT community, action in Congress has not been nearly to the level that it should.

Without question, the current 111th Congress has more members who support rights and protections for LGBT people than any other in the history of our country. Both the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader can be counted among them. However, other than a hate crimes bill that included sexual orientation and gender identity among protected categories, Congress has yet to deliver on the LGBT community’s most important legislative priorities. LGBT people should not have to wait to be the victim of a brutal act of violence in order to enjoy the support and protection of the federal government.

President Obama’s call in his State of the Union address for Congress to act this year to repeal the discriminatory and counterproductive “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy was a reminder that, for many important polices impacting the LGBT community, the ball really is in Congress’s court. From repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and DADT to enactment of the long-awaited Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and protections for LGBT students who experience discrimination and harassment in their public schools, the need for Congress, this Congress, to act and deliver for the LGBT community could not be stronger.

Fortunately, it seems like leaders in Congress have gotten the message (at least in part). A vote in the House of Representatives on ENDA now appears likely to happen before the July 4 recess. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) views the legislation (H.R. 3017), which has nearly 200 bipartisan cosponsors, in a considerably less controversial light than reportedly had been the case in previous years. Perhaps popular support for such employment protections or the fact that the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies already provide such protections for their employees, has helped to tamp down some of the vitriolic opposition to the legislation in Congress, if not at the Washington Times. Time will tell, but a vote by the full House of Representatives seems like a sure thing at this point.

Additionally, 2010 may provide Congress with the best opportunity since its enactment nearly two decades ago to finally repeal DADT and allow gay and lesbian service members the opportunity to serve their country openly without the need to lie about who they and their loved ones are. Votes in Congress to repeal the policy are likely this year, even while the Pentagon finalizes a review about how best to implement repeal.

While there is currently reason for some cautious optimism for the LGBT community, it is important to remember that none of these would-be victories will happen in a vacuum. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents in support of these important and long overdue rights and protections. Don’t let this opportunity slip by without making your voice heard.