Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Monday that he would not support the Equality Act, which would expand and clarify federal protections for LGBTQ people, without significant changes.
Manchin, the only Senate Democrat who is not supporting the legislation, said he wants to provide more control to local officials. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) is the only Democrat in the House who does not support the current legislation.
“I strongly support equality for all people and do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. No one should be afraid of losing their job or losing their housing because of their sexual orientation,” Manchin told the press. “I am not convinced that the Equality Act as written provides sufficient guidance to the local officials who will be responsible for implementing it, particularly with respect to students transitioning between genders in public schools.”
Advocates pushed back on that reasoning Monday. “Legal discrimination remains a ubiquitous and dangerous force in the lives of far too many people, especially the lives of transgender youth who can be discriminated against in schools, just for being who they are,” Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, told Think Progress in a statement.
Byard said the guidance for local officials that Manchin referred to “is most often provided by federal agency regulations for implementation after passage of legislation — and every other Democrat in Congress recognizes this is no reason to hold back their support of the Equality Act.”
LGBTQ people are relying on a patchwork of state protections against housing and employment discrimination. This means a transgender woman fired for her gender in New York, which recently passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination (GENDA) Act, faces a different legal landscape than she would in North Dakota, where there is no employment nondiscrimination law. Although the New York legislature passed GENDA in January, there is still some chance that if challenged, it will be no match for the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.
The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, employment, education, federal programs, jury service, public accommodations, and credit and lending. It would also include protections against discrimination in public spaces and services like retail stores, transportation services, banks, and legal services.
Manchin notably referred to one of the most vulnerable groups who would be supported by the Equality Act: transgender youth. Although many school districts have changed their policies to be inclusive to transgender students who want to play on the sports team of their gender or use a bathroom corresponding to their gender, many school districts still have discriminatory policies and practices in place.
A GLSEN National School Climate Survey shows an upward trend from 2013 to 2017 in the frequency of school staff making negative remarks about gender expression. Seventy-one percent of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.
In 2017, the Education Department and Justice Department withdrew Obama administration guidance for school districts on bathroom access for transgender people. The Education Department told BuzzFeed News last year that it wouldn’t investigate or take action on complaints from transgender students on the issue of restroom access, saying, “Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, not gender identity.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality has stated that although some courts have said Title IX, the federal civil rights law, protects transgender students, it supports the Equality Act’s ability to “make clear, once and for all, transgender students are protected, from harassment, exclusion from school facilities, and other forms of discrimination.”
A lack of clear protections for transgender people can contribute to health issues and harassment. Trans people have reported avoiding bathrooms and avoiding eating or drinking so that they would not have to use restrooms, according to a 2015 survey of trans people across the United States. Twelve percent of trans people said they had been harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted in a bathroom, and 8 percent reported having a urinary tract infection or kidney infection as a result of avoiding bathrooms.
There is also no evidence to support the idea that transgender people using bathrooms and other facilities that correspond with with their gender will result in any increased violence or harassment in bathrooms, a myth pushed by conservatives. A 2018 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that incidents of women and children being attacked in public restrooms are rare and unrelated to local nondiscrimination laws.
LGBTQ rights groups, West Virginia Democratic groups, and national political strategists responded to Manchin’s statement on Monday.
David Stacy, government affairs director at the Human Rights Campaign, released a statement saying HRC is committed to continuing to work with Manchin to ensure nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people pass Congress. “Federal courts are already holding schools accountable for discrimination against transgender students, and guidance and best practices are readily available,” Stacy said.
The West Virginia Democratic Party weighed in as well. “If this past Legislative Session didn’t prove that we need to fight against discrimination and hate even harder in West Virginia then I don’t know what does,” the party said in a statement, calling on Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) to “lead by example.”