|WASHINGTON, D.C. — The 2007 state legislative season has been the most productive in the history of the LGBT rights movement and, as a result, for the first time more than half of the U.S. population will live in a jurisdiction that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, according to an analysis of census data and current laws released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
In addition, nearly 40 percent of the population will now live in a jurisdiction that protects transgender people from discrimination — a sevenfold increase since 2000, and one-fifth of all Americans will live in a state that offers same-sex couples broad rights under state law, more than an eightfold increase since 2004. The Task Force said the 2006 elections and years of dogged work at the grassroots level were responsible for the surge in legislation.
“This is a historic and long-overdue milestone. At long last, a majority of Americans will now live in a jurisdiction that protects people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Important protections for transgender people and broad rights for same-sex couples are surging from coast to coast. We still have a very long way to go, but the tide is clearly shifting.”
Since Jan. 1, 2007, the legislatures in four states — an all-time high — have passed non-discrimination laws. Three of those states — Iowa, Oregon and Colorado — moved to extend protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and the Vermont Legislature passed a bill amending its existing non-discrimination laws to include transgender people. As a result, the percentage of the U.S. population living in a jurisdiction protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual people from discrimination will rise to 52 percent, crossing the halfway mark for the first time. The laws of Iowa, Oregon and Vermont prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, among other categories; Colorado’s law covers employment only.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed his state’s bill into law on May 9. The governors in the other three states have pledged to sign their bills into law as well.
When the four state discrimination laws go into effect, 37 percent of the population will live in a jurisdiction that protects transgender people from discrimination.
Protections for transgender people have grown much more quickly over the last decade than those for lesbian, gay and bisexual people because of a commitment of the LGBT movement to insist that transgender people be included in new non-discrimination laws and to go back and add protections for transgender people to existing sexual orientation-only laws.
Since 2000, the percentage of the population living in a jurisdiction with non-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation grew 14 percentage points (from 38 percent to 52 percent). During the same period, the percentage of the population living in a jurisdiction with non-discrimination laws covering gender identity/expression grew 32 percentage points (from five percent to 37 percent), more than five times the rate of growth for sexual orientation protections.
The Task Force created and staffed its Transgender Civil Rights Project in 2001 with the goal of increasing the number of transgender-protective discrimination laws. Since the project’s inception, the proportion of the population covered by transgender-inclusive laws has increased from six percent to 37 percent.
“It’s clear that legislators recognize that transgender people face widespread discrimination and deserve the same protections as other minorities,” said Foreman. “The common wisdom used to be that including protections for transgender people would kill a bill — that’s obviously not the case.”
Foreman noted in early May the U.S. House of Representatives passed a hate crimes bill containing explicit protections for transgender people by a vote of 237-180 and that this year the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. There is widespread expectation that both houses of Congress will take up ENDA before the end of the calendar year.
Over the last five months (December through April), legislatures in three states — New Jersey, New Hampshire and Oregon — passed laws seeking to grant same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples under state law through civil unions or domestic partnerships. As in the non-discrimination arena, there are more states taking such action than in any previous state legislative season. As a result, one-fifth (20 percent) of the U.S. population will live in a state that offers broad rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples. Other jurisdictions, including the state of Washington, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, have passed laws that give significant but not comprehensive rights to domestic partners. These jurisdictions are not included in the calculations.
Five years ago in 2002 just one state, Vermont, with 0.2 percent of the population, offered broad protections to same-sex couples. When the bills passed this session take effect, seven states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont), with 20 percent of the population, will offer broad protections to same-sex couples.
The new laws are heralded by The Task Force as a particularly satisfying turnaround from 2004, when Oregon voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the recognition of same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, the narrowest margin among the 13 states voting on anti-marriage measures that year. The Task Force donated nearly $900,000 in cash in the attempt to defeat the amendment and sent 10 organizers to help staff the campaign.
“While the 2004 loss really hurt, it’s now clear that our campaign really did convince people that all families deserve broad protections and relationship rights,” said Thalia Zepatos, director of the Task Force’s Organizing & Training Department.
2006 elections and years of grassroots work credited with surge in protections
The results of the 2006 election clearly played a pivotal role in four (Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Oregon) of the six states passing non-discrimination or family protection laws since December.
Before the November elections, Democrats held control of both houses of the state legislatures in three of the states taking pro-LGBT action: Vermont, Colorado and New Jersey. As a result of the November elections, however, Democrats picked up control of both houses in the other three states: Iowa, Oregon and New Hampshire. Before the elections in Iowa, the Senate was evenly divided and the House was Republican-dominated; in Oregon, Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans controlled the House; in New Hampshire, both houses were controlled by Republicans. In Colorado, Democrats strengthened their control of the Legislature, and Democrat William Ritter succeeded Republican William Owens, who had twice vetoed the non-discrimination bill.
The change in control of the state legislatures was due to Democratic gains nationwide, as well as specific work to elect pro-LGBT state legislators spearheaded by Colorado philanthropist Tim Gill.
In Oregon in 2006, then-House Speaker Karen Minnis was singularly responsible for blocking non-discrimination and family recognition legislation bills. With Democrats taking control of that chamber, Minnis has since lost her leadership position.
Although it took Democratic control to move the bills, each passed with Republican support (although Colorado’s employment non-discrimination bill passed with only one Republican voting for it).
The Task Force stressed that while the change in party control was an essential factor in moving bills this year, grassroots activism over many years made it possible for legislators to vote on the pro-LGBT measures. In Oregon, for example, activists had been pushing a non-discrimination law for nearly 30 years, and work on the comprehensive domestic partnership law began immediately after the 2004 election. Similarly, the LGBT community in Vermont has been pushing to include protections for transgender people for eight years, and New Hampshire’s civil union law is a direct result of marriage equality organizing by the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition.
“These bills would have never passed without the dogged work of state and local leaders and organizations over many, many years,” Foreman said. “Our national community owes them all its respect and gratitude.”