In June 1969, New York City police conducted a raid on a club named the Stonewall Inn. The bar was serving alcohol without a license, but many believed the real reason for the raid was that it was a gay bar. The patrons rioted against the police, sparking what became known as the Stonewall Riots – a pivotal moment in the long and continuing fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

It will take the negotiation skills of Sens. Susan Collins, right, and Joe Manchin to ensure that the Equality Act – a national ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity – receives the 60 votes it needs to send the legislation to President Biden. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press, File

Since then much progress has been made. Today, 29 countries, including the United States, have legalized same-sex marriage. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that workers can’t be fired for being gay or transgender. It would seem that there is much to celebrate as we head toward June, LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Unless, of course, if you live in Alabama, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states where a hodgepodge of state and local laws still allow discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender.

Congress is considering legislation that would replace this patchwork of state laws with one national law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Equality Act passed the House in February, supported by U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, but by very few Republicans. Now, the bill is before the U.S. Senate, where it has the support of 49 senators, including Sen. Angus King. It will, however, require support from at least 10 Republicans to reach the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster and send this bill to President Biden, who has made enactment a priority.

Making enactment possible will fall upon two senators who find themselves in the middle of a divided Senate – Republican Susan Collins of Maine and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the only Democrat not co-sponsoring the bill. Collins was the only Republican to co-sponsor the Equality Act in the last Congress, but, like Manchin, she has expressed concern that some changes are necessary to win enough support from Democrats like Manchin and more conservative Republicans in order to get this bill over the final hurdle.

Some have tried to argue that Collins’ refusal to co-sponsor the House version of the Equality Act is proof she has turned her back on the LGBTQ community. But that is not true: Collins’ record of support for LGBTQ+ Americans is solid. Collins led the compromise and gathered the Republican support required to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” – a Department of Defense policy that forced gay and lesbian service members to stay in the closet or risk being kicked out of the military. She bucked her party to oppose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and long before the 2020 Supreme Court ruling, Collins was critical to getting Republican votes for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, intended to prevent Americans from being fired just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Collins has proven she is an honest broker, willing to do the hard work to strike the right compromise to get the Equality Act enacted this year. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., sponsor of the Equality Act, should not let perfection be the enemy of the good and should listen to the sincere questions that not only Collins but also others have raised. Leaders of eight faith-based organizations recently sent letters to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing support for federal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans while also outlining their concerns that the Equality Act, as written, may reverse religious freedom protections already in law. Their concerns should not be dismissed. In fact, a recent Public Religion Research Institute report indicates growing support for nondiscrimination laws among religious groups. I believe it is possible to reach a reasonable compromise with faith groups to protect religious freedom and prevent discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans. Achieving such a compromise is a challenge worth undertaking and beneficial to long-term civil rights protection.

The truth is that no legislation is perfect, and politics is the art of the possible. I believe it is possible, even in today’s polarized political environment, to craft a compromise that will win the bipartisan support needed in the Senate to protect LGBTQ+ Americans, and further advance a battle for human fights that began in New York 52 years ago.


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