Merkley to lead push for federal LGBT protection

WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., announced his intention to introduce sweeping anti-discrimination legislation that would provide federal protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

The bill, which Merkley plans to introduce sometime after the 114th Congress is sworn in Jan. 6, will be designed to protect members of the LGBT community from unequal treatment in such areas as employment, housing and access to public accommodations.

At an event at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., Merkley said most Americans would be shocked to realize how much discrimination is still legal in various states across the country.

“In dozens of states across the country, LGBT Americans lack the basic nondiscrimination protections that so many of us take for granted,” said Merkley at the event. “In North Carolina today, a gay man could be fired from his job just for being gay. In Michigan, a young couple could be denied the chance to buy their first home just because they’re both women. In Pennsylvania, a transgender woman could be denied service and kicked out of a restaurant just for being who she is. And all of this would be perfectly legal.”

Merkley supported legislation during the term of Congress that just ended that would have made it illegal to fire someone based on sexual orientation, but it was not enacted into law. The new legislation aims to put broader protections into place for LGBT individuals.

Jann Carson, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the ACLU strongly supports bringing a holistic approach to adding protections under the law for LGBT individuals.

“I think most Americans think it is wrong to discriminate against someone for who they are,” she said.

While prospects for Merkley’s legislation may face an uphill climb in the next Congress when Republicans control both chambers, just the debate around it will keep the issue of equality under discussion, she said.

“The need is there, so we shouldn’t shy away from trying to advance civil rights for (LGBT) people just because it’s a tougher climate, or because we might have to be more convincing,” she said.

While public opinion seems to have coalesced around acceptance of same-sex marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court has hinted it will allow rulings in favor of same-sex marriage to stand, progress shouldn’t end there, she said.

“What we’re saying is: We want to reach the age where who you love doesn’t become a lawful disqualifier for access to all of these other essentials in being able to live in America, to be able to get a job, to have housing,” she said.

Portland attorney Kevin Clonts, who serves as the co-chairman of OGALLA: The LGBT Bar Association of Oregon, said the organization supports extending the protections that already exist in Oregon to include the entire country.

Federal law bans discrimination based on a person’s gender, religion, national origin, race and ethnicity, he said.

“Those are national protections that have been around for many years, and it doesn’t make any sense to exclude one minority,” he said. “I don’t know why a line would be drawn to exclude national protections for LGBT people as is currently the case.”

Eric Overby, the father of a transgender daughter, serves as the coordinator for the East County chapter of PFLAG Portland, a group built around the support of family and friends for the LGBT community. Merkley’s proposed legislation is very necessary, he said.

He has seen firsthand how his daughter, who is still in transition changing her gender, has come home from interviews knowing she didn’t get the job because she went dressed as a woman.

“She wound up having to dress androgynously in order to get a second interview or even a job offer,” said Overby, a former Navy recruiter.

The LGBT community shouldn’t rest on its laurels after its victories in legalizing same-sex marriage in various states, he said.

“We tend to think, especially on the national spectrum, that we are all protected, but in reality we’re not. States have their own laws,” he said. The issue of complete protections for LGBT individuals “needs to come to a larger stage, and I’m proud that Senator Merkley is leading it in that direction.”