Opponents of the Equality Act have taken a novel approach in slamming the legislation — calling it anti-woman.
“The way this is written really tramples on women’s rights,” Rep. Debbie Lesko, Arizona Republican, said Tuesday. “This is just not an equality act.”
House Democrats see the Equality Act as fulfilling the promise of civil rights laws passed in the 1960s and 70s that did not recognize anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ persons. It has 237 Democratic and three Republican co-sponsors, and is set for a vote in the full House in coming days.
But the legislation is facing criticism from an unlikely source: women’s advocacy groups, who fear that when “sex” is redefined in federal law as “gender identity,” “women” disappears as a legal category.
“You basically erase the category of ‘women and men’ as a coherent category in the original Civil Rights Act,” said Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
Ms. Kao disagrees with medical professionals’ opinion, including the American Medical Association, that transgender identity is an objective gender category. She points to current events as worst-case scenarios for women’s rights if the Equality Act passes:
• In Georgia, federal authorities are investigating whether a girl in kindergarten was sexually harassed by a “gender fluid” boy allowed by the school’s open-doors policy to use the girls’ restroom.
• In Alaska, a Christian soup kitchen has sued the state and the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission over whether its shelter would need to assign transgender women to quarters for biological women suffering from sexually related trauma.
Congressional Republicans have piggybacked on these legal questions in opposing the bill, trying to cast Democrats as being unconcerned with biological males competing in women’s athletics or the privacy of girls in locker rooms. Last week, Ms. Lesko offered an amendment to rename the bill “Forfeiting Women’s Rights Act.”
“[This bill] would make it so you can’t use the word ‘he’ or ‘she’ in employment places,” Ms. Lesko said. “[And] it would also require doctors to provide sex change surgeries and sex hormones to adolescents without parental consent.”
However, the National Organization for Women opposes depictions of the legislation as being anti-woman, saying NOW is committed to supporting laws for the “trans and non-binary community.”
“Right now the House of Representatives has the opportunity to stand up for LGBTQIA rights, prevent discrimination based on gender identity at public facilities and protect women from sexual harassment all in one bill,” NOW President Toni Van Pelt said in an email.
The bill’s prime sponsor — Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat — also has pushed back against the anti-woman depiction, suggesting it would only prevent medical practitioners from denying care based on one’s sex status.
The legislation would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in various laws from civil rights era of the 1960s to the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991. Its supporters say codifying LGBTQ protections in federal law is needed urgently, since the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up the question of whether Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Equality Act backers say such sweeping legislation would provide clarity on a range of protections, from employment to access to public facilities.
“Trying to insert trans people’s lives into the well-being of women as a wedge issue is really unfortunate,” said Libby Skarin, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. “I grew up in Iowa, where we’ve long had comprehensive non-discrimination laws, and you can see that women and girls are not suffering under these laws. It’s really just a disingenuous to use the rights of women to undermine other rights.”
Ms. Lesko seemed marginally optimistic when asked if she could support a bill that provides a carve-out for female-only environments, especially under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — as tennis star Martina Navratilova and others called for in a Washington Post opinion column under the headline, “Pass the Equality Act, but don’t abandon Title IX.”
“It’s possible,” the Arizona congresswoman said. “If it was written in such a way to protect both transgenders and the rights of women. But not this. It’s really bad. I don’t know why any women would want to support this bill.”