America has come a long way since the days when gays and lesbians were ostracized, humiliated and forced to remain closeted if they didn’t want to face the physical oppression or the brunt of laws that targeted their alternative lifestyle.
Still, the tragedy that unfolded earlier this year in an Orlando nightclub that welcomed the LGBTQ community and their friends, serves as a stark reminder that the battle for equal rights for gays has not been won. Further, the vitriol they face from other Americans can lead to violence of the highest order.
But, efforts by local and national legislators, while not always highly publicized, have achieved significant inroads toward ending discrimination and establishing a community that both respects and embraces individuals regardless of their sexual preference.
Two Congressional Black Caucus members who have committed themselves to the extension of equal rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, the elimination of hate-motivated violence and the improved health and well-being for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, are Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
Lee serves as the vice chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, which she helped found in 2008. Thinkprogess.com has acknowledged her as the most pro-LGBT member of Congress, pointing to 2012 when she sponsored or co-sponsored 23 of the 27 pro-LGBT proposals. The Bills seeking gender equality addressed teaching sex education, tracking health data for gays and other minority groups, banning employment discrimination on the job and bullying in schools, and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.
Lewis, one of the last remaining – and certainly most vocal members – of a group of civil rights advocates recruited, trained and inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his support to the Equality Act in 2015. This legislation is aimed at ending discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity by amending existing Federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“This is a great day in America – the Supreme Court made the right decision, and it was long overdue.” Lewis said following the Court’s affirmative decision on marriage equality.
“I have said this for a long time, and I am so glad to see that our nation has finally come to this understanding: If two men or women want to fall in love and get married, it is their business. No government has the right to authorize whom a person should love. And it is better to love than to hate,” he said.
In June of this year, after the murders of 49 LGBT people in Orlando, Lewis took part in a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor along with other members of Congress, demanding immediate action of gun safety legislation while wearing rainbow-colored pins to illustrate their solidarity to the LGBTQ community.
Lewis has voted ‘no’ on a Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as one-man-one-woman and, ‘yes’ on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Isaiah Wilson, external affairs manager for the D.C.-based National Black Justice Coalition, directs public policy as it relates to legislation and advocacy efforts. He says LGBTQ equality cannot deny its intersection with current movements like Black Lives Matter.
“Black Lives Matter has proposed public policy which recognizes that health disparities and the disproportionate number of inadequate public schools within the Black community, even the violence that has escalated resulting in the deaths of transgender individuals, all have roots in America’s history of laws and structures that support attitudes of prejudice, racism and oppression,” Wilson said.
“We have advocates in Congress: Georgia’s Park Cannon, a woman who identifies as queer and replaced State Rep. Simone Bell, another self-acknowledged lesbian; Congresswoman Watson Coleman from New Jersey; Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) who introduced the Equality Act of 2015; and of course Congresswoman Lee and Congressman Lewis.”
“We have to build an agenda, as Black Lives Matters and a committed group of members of Congress, have proposed – one that speaks to the broad tapestry that is America, recognizes the issues we collectively face, and holds elected officials accountable,” said Wilson. “We’ll make sure our concerns are addressed when we meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus during our annual “Out on the Hill” activities in September.”
And, while some Blacks suggest that gay rights should not be considered part of today’s Civil Rights agenda, Lewis says he disagrees.
“I fought too long and too hard to end discrimination based on race and color, not to stand up against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,” said the 13-term congressman who chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.