The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee tackled the Equality Act for the first time in a three-hour hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, with striking political and ideological fissures evident throughout the proceedings. It was a historic moment both for the movement in support of securing LGBTQ rights nationwide, and for the promotion of both homophobia and transphobia in the name of religion, fearmongering and discrimination.
Opponents’ main contention against the legislation, which would extend protections from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity, centered on how the act would impact scholastic sports.
Republican members of the committee, many of them prominent anti-LGBTQ and pro-Trump voices, aggressively pursued the sports issue. In her testimony, noted anti-trans critic and author Abigail Shrier threw familiar and downright transphobic jabs right from the start of her opening statement.
“If your daughter or granddaughter was the top high school tennis player in her state, and then five biological boys suddenly decided, at the age of 17, to identify as female — should she drop overnight to number 6?” Shrier asked. “Should she lose her college scholarship to a male-bodied athlete who might never have qualified for the boys’ team? Does that strike any member of this committee as fair or just?
In stark contrast to Shrier was the young woman who testified immediately following her. Stella Keating, a 16-year-old transgender high school student from Tacoma, Wash., addressed the committee remotely. The teenage girl, one of the GenderCool Project champions, brought forth a confident, hopeful smile and a sober assessment of what the Equality Act means for her future.
“Right now, I live in a state where I have equal protection under the law, and as a high-school sophomore, I’m starting to look at colleges,” she testified. “All I can think about is this: less than half of the states in our country provide equal protection for me under the law. What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me? Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How’s that even right? How’s that even American? What if I’m offered a dream job in a state where I can be discriminated against? Even if my employer is supportive, I still have to live somewhere. Eat in restaurants. Have a doctor.”
The committee’s chair, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, asked Keating what she thought about transgender girls “dominating” high school sports, a mainstay argument of the opposition.
Anti-trans legislators want you to believe that they’re saving women’s sports by discriminating against trans people.— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) March 17, 2021
What they’re actually doing is hurting kids like Stella. pic.twitter.com/HR8KxLwmDp
“In my freshman year before Covid hit, I was planning on joining my girl’s bowling team at my high school. I wanted to do it because I wanted to just hang out with my friends.” Keating told Durbin. “A lot of my friends were on this bowling team and I really wanted to just hang out with them. I can tell you that the majority of transgender people who join sports just want to hang out with their friends.”
Throughout the hearing, Republicans and anti-trans advocates focused much of their criticism of the Equality Act by attacking how it would benefit transgender student-athletes. The ranking minority committee member, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, previewed Shirer’s rhetoric when he brought-up three cisgender student-athletes who are plaintiffs in the Alliance Defending Freedom federal lawsuit against Connecticut’s state high school sports governing body. Large photos of the young cis women served as a dramatic backdrop as the senator lied in his opening statement.
“Chelsea is a star high school athletic athlete in Connecticut,” Grassley said. Actually, she’s a freshman attending William & Mary on a sports scholarship, having graduated in 2020.
“This accomplished athlete has been forced to compete against biological men,” he continued. No, the law in Connecticut and state scholastic policy allows every student-athlete to compete according to their gender identity, including transgender girls, who are girls, not “biological men,” which is an offensive term utilized by opponents of trans rights in order to oppress and other them. Mitchell was not forced to compete; She chose to compete in track and field events, and soundly defeated a trans athlete, twice, within days of filing of that lawsuit.
“I am deeply concerned about this act’s potential negative implications for all girls and women in sports.” It was clear Sen. Grassley did not actually mean, “all girls and women,” just cisgender ones.
Some of those questioning the Equality Act’s expansion of civil rights raised fears about its impact on the freedom of religion. Edith Guffey, a conference minister at the United Church of Christ in Kansas, a mom and a representative of PFLAG, reminded the senators religion was once used as a weapon against enslaved Black Americans.
“We should all be able to agree on this one thing — the law should treat all our children, God’s children, equally,” Guffey testified. Her 14-year old child came out as gay and then as trans-non-binary. “I also know how religion and faith were used to justify slavery, but that was wrong, and most faith communities today admit that. I think we can learn from that history. No one should be denied rights and services because of who they are or who they love. Any kind of discrimination is inconsistent with the God of love that I know and trust.”
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David testified that the fears of the opposition don’t add up. “The contention that providing these protections to LGBTQ people in some way will result in the sky falling, will compromise women’s rights, is not true because if it was true we’d have seen it already,” he stated. “We’d have seen it the states that have had non-discrimination laws on the books for decades.”
“The legislation doesn’t create some new reality,” David continued. “It simply allows transgender students to not be discriminated against in sports. Twenty states, the NCAA, and even the International Olympic Committee already allow transgender athletes to participate and have for years.”
In his opening statement, Sen. Durbin noted that despite the vocal opposition from his Republican colleagues and their witnesses, the Equality Act has widespread support.
“The Equality Act would ensure that LGBTQ Americans are protected from discrimination in public accommodations, education, federally funded program, employment, housing credit, and jury service. This legislation has been endorsed by 600, 600 civil rights, healthcare and faith-based organizations. Nearly 400 major corporations support the bill along with 60 business associations, including the national association of manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce. And a nonpartisan poll found that more than 70% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents support non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ Americans.”
The problem is Senate Democrats need 10 Republicans to join them for the bill to pass the Senate and that seems improbable based on Wednesday’s divided hearing, although there was talk of a potential compromise. The Equality Act already won approval in the House with three Republicans joining Democrats and has support from President Biden who made passage of the bill part of his first 100-days agenda.