Bella Abzug, center with hat, smiles as she holds up her ERA sign in a pro-equal rights demonstration on New York's Fifth Avenue, Aug. 26, 1980. About 5,000 marchers marched down Fifth Avenue chanting pro-equal rights slogans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote. (Photo: Photo: AP, Illustration: USA TODAY Network)
Forty-seven years ago this month, my mother, Bella Abzug, introduced the nation’s first gay rights bill in Congress. It would have amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to included lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans. My mother, ever the pioneering reformer, saw the clear and urgent need for addressing discrimination that far too often destroyed people’s well-being and lives.
While much has improved for LGBTQ Americans since that spring day in 1974 – with growing opportunities for living openly and in safety, for marrying and for serving in the nation’s military – discrimination remains a daily reality for many in our communities. For nearly a half-century, however, Congress has failed to follow my mother’s lead to extend equal nondiscrimination protections to all LGBTQ people – despite polling showing overwhelming and bipartisan support across the nation for doing just that.
Anti-LGBTQ discrimination is not some abstract or political football. Instead, it has profoundly damaging, real-life and often lifelong consequences for LGBTQ Americans. More than 1 in 3 LGBTQ folks, according to a 2020 Center for American Progress survey, experienced discrimination of some kind – perhaps in public spaces, on the job, in schools and in their own neighborhoods – in the previous year, with that number rising to over 60% among transgender people.
Vulnerable groups, including communities of color, transgender folks, seniors and youth, face especially severe consequences. According to a 2013 report by multiple advocacy groups, unemployment and poverty rates – already higher among people of color than among whites – are significantly higher yet among LGBTQ people of color, particularly Black LGBTQ people, who are more likely than their white LGBTQ counterparts to be raising children under these burdens.
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According to a large 2016 report, transgender Americans experience unemployment and poverty at 2.5 to three times the national average, and almost 1 in 3 have experienced homelessness in their lifetime. Violence also stalks the lives of trans people – with nearly half of adults, 47%, reporting having been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives and a record 44 killings last year, most of them targeting women of color. Unsurprisingly, psychological distress, including suicide attempts, far exceeds the level confronted Americans generally.
Activists from the National Center for Transgender Equality, partner organizations and their supporters hold a "We Will Not Be Erased" rally in front of the White House October 22, 2018. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Among LGBTQ elders, same-sex couples face persistent discrimination in securing senior housing, while our community’s youth face bullying and depression and risk for suicide at alarmingly high levels, with less than half the states providing explicit protections against harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
After 47 years, there is now hope that Congress might finally be ready to act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that include LGBTQ protections in our nation’s civil rights laws. The major bone of contention between the two parties’ bills involves how to balance the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with the religious freedoms all Americans enjoy.
We need ‘Battling Bella’s’ fighting spirit
My mother, known by many as “Battling Bella,” famously never shied away from a fight. At the same time, she was deeply committed to getting things done, saying “I want action – not talk.”
Bella Abzug (Photo: Photo: Associated Press, Illustration: USA TODAY Network)
For example, she partnered with Republican Rep. Barry Goldwater to get the Privacy Rights Act of 1974 over the finish line. She co-authored and championed Title IX – the historic law prohibiting discrimination on basis of sex by educational institutions receiving federal funding – accepting that an exemption for religious schools was a price of winning. Over the fierce opposition of many leaders of the women’s rights movement, she knew it was critical that conservative women – including opponents of abortion – be invited to the first National Women’s Conference in 1977.
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We need this kind of courageous leadership today from the Republican and Democratic senators who say they support nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. We need them to get out of their safe corners and find common ground. This is what legislating is all about and it doesn’t require sacrificing fundamental principles.
Liz Abzug in New York City in 2021. (Photo: Family handout)
After nearly five decades, it’s time for Congress to finally deliver on my mother’s vision and include LGBTQ people – coast to coast – in the protections provided to all other Americans by the Civil Rights Act.
Liz Abzug is a national public affairs and strategic consultant, and founder and president of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, New York City.
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