Practical Politics

The Universal Gay Rights Bill You Don’t Want

featured_legislationIt’s 2012 and Congress is debating a new bill titled “The Equality & Religious Freedom Act.” It’s scope is wide reaching: It requires the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships legalized by states, it turns Employment Nondiscrimination Act into an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and adds to it protections from housing, public accommodation and credit discrimination, it overturns Don’t Ask- Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, it enacts the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act and protects foreign-born partners of same-sex couples, granting them citizenship the same way straight couples do.

Sounds pretty good, right? Well, a Florida based group called eQualityGiving.org is trying to make it a reality. You can read the proposed bill as PDF here. Here’s why an omnibus gay rights bill is a terrible idea.

“We feel the less you ask for, the less you get.” says Juan Ahonen-Jover of Miami, a gay philanthropist and co-founder of eQualityGiving.org. The group retained Karen Doering, an LGBT rights lawyer and former staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights to draft the proposed legislation, which would put all the various gay rights issues that have been fought separately into one big package.

The idea isn’t entirely without merit and as a thought experiment, the idea of a sweeping omnibus bill is appealing, if only because it forces a discussion about why such a bill is impractical. On one hand, much of the recent success the gay community has had in raising its profile is by demanding political action and forcing politicians to make clear their support for or against gay rights. This, “storm the gates” strategy has yet to result in any actual change in legislation or policy, but it has enormous value in making the case for gay rights to the larger public. A gay omnibus bill, were it able to escape from committee, would undoubtedly incite a national debate on our rights and just why, exactly, gays and lesbians are treated as second-class citizens.

The problem, of course, is that Congress, even with its current Democratic bent, is as likely to pass a bill like this as it is to pass a bill guaranteeing each and every American their own personal panda bear. The Human Rights Campaign, through spokesperson Trevor Thomas, said of the idea:

“The underlying objective of this proposed approach is laudable. There is a long list of legislative priorities that need to be achieved, but packaging all of these ideas together will not make passage easier. In fact, re-packaging this legislation would require us to rebuild the support that the existing bills have garnered over the years from civil rights, labor, and business groups. What we need is a lot of hard grassroots work and all hands on deck.”

The tension between idealism and strategy is nothing new for the gay rights community, with many lambasting Rep. Barney Frank’s decision to bring a version of ENDA to the House last year that did not include trans rights. It’s an interesting dilemma. HRC is continually criticized for its “wait and see” approach to gay rights legislation and yet, does anyone think that “The Equality & Religious Freedom Act”, which includes everything but the kitchen sink could possibly be a viable piece of legislation? If you do, I’d like to sell you a condo in the new gay rights mecca of Wichita.

At the risk of being accused of betraying our principles, we think a gay rights omnibus bill is at best, a distraction. There are many worthy pieces of legislation, particularly ENDA and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, which are within striking distance of passing. Grand gestures have their place, but with gay Americans still lacking basic federal protection from discrimination, we’ll take the practical over the poetic, the achievable over the inspiring. When it comes to demanding our equality, we should stand on principle. When it comes to making it happen, we ought to be pragmatic.