In 2012, I taught a course for potential real estate agents that included anti-discrimination and fair housing laws. I wanted the students to understand the importance of these protections. I researched the history and damage discrimination does to individuals, families, neighborhoods and our nation.
After teaching those classes, it was impossible for me to ignore the glaring lack of anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Without knowing anyone who was openly LGBTQ, I had not realized how common discrimination was for them. For this and other reasons, my husband and I started learning more and reaching out to the LGBTQ community. We were guided by our faith and the important statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and have “unalienable Rights” that include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We started having monthly dinners at our house for LGBTQ young adults. As we got to know these young people and some parents, we saw firsthand the heartbreaking effects of discrimination. A recent college graduate lost their job as soon as their employer found out they were LGBTQ. Another was asked to leave their apartment of several years. A gay couple was told by hotel management not to use the hotel pool. One couple we met took a young woman into their home when they found out she was homeless. Her landlord had found out she was lesbian and insisted she leave immediately with nowhere to live except her car.
When I share these stories, many people incorrectly believe that federal laws already protect LGBTQ people. While several states have some protections, most states do not have any anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people. It is immoral and cruel not to protect everyone equally. Discrimination raises tensions while polarizing and dividing our neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, and even families. A healthy society is dependent on connection and belonging. Federal laws must protect LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public spaces and public accommodations.
A recent PRRI survey shows that a strong majority of Americans — from every state and across all faith major traditions — supports passing federal nondiscrimination LGBTQ protections.
Six years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a rare press conference to call on all local, state and federal governments to serve all their people by passing legislation in this important area of LGBTQ rights. In Utah, we have come together in the past. It is time to work together again.
Two bills have been introduced in Congress — one by Republicans, the Fairness for All Act, and one by Democrats, the Equality Act. There is clear bipartisan agreement that we need new legislation in this area. The PRRI survey shows a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents favors this. There is a pathway forward if members of Congress from across the political and religious spectrums come together to work out the challenging details. We need to do that this year.
Several of our Utah members of Congress are well poised to help lead. More than 25 years ago, Mitt Romney said, “I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster anti-discrimination efforts.” In a 2007 interview he stated that not discriminating against people is one of his fundamental core beliefs. We need these voices more than ever.
I am grateful for the members of Congress who have already shown a willingness to find bipartisan consensus and work toward solutions. I urge all to work toward change at the national level. We already have strong support in Utah with 74% of Utahns favoring LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws. Key stakeholders across our state also support protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination.
As Congress gets back to work alongside a new administration, I hope many will demonstrate bold leadership by finding bipartisan support for federal legislation that would ensure all LGBTQ Americans can live, work, and access public spaces free from discrimination, no matter what state they call home. The time is now.
Debra Oaks Coe is a local realtor who works as a volunteer on suicide prevention and is the anti-discrimination specialist for Mormon Women for Ethical Government.