A transgender teen emerged as the star of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act Wednesday, while opponents of the bill claimed it would end women’s sports and lead to lawsuits against houses of worship and clergy members.
The act would amend national civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, adding these characteristics to ones already included, such as race, sex, and religion. It would cover employment, housing, public accommodations, and a variety of other aspects of life.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed it in February, as it had two years ago, in the previous session of Congress. In that session, it never received a hearing in the Senate, where Republicans then held a majority of seats. Wednesday’s hearing was the first one it has ever had in the Senate, as Democrats now have a majority, albeit a slim one.
Stella Keating, a 16-year-old trans girl from Washington State, testified in favor of the bill, noting that she is protected from discrimination where she lives now, but she is looking at colleges and planning her career. She is a founder of the GenderCool Project, aimed at advancing understanding of trans and nonbinary people, and wants to be a civil rights attorney and eventually run for public office.
“What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me?” she said. “Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How is that even right? How is that even American?
“What if I’m offered a dream job in a state where I can be discriminated against? Even if my employer is supportive, I still have to live somewhere. Eat in restaurants. Have a doctor.” When the hearing ended after more than three hours, with a variety of witnesses having testified both for and against the bill, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, pronounced Keating the star of the proceedings, “certainly the 16-year-old star.” He pledged to her and the other witnesses that he would work to make equality a reality.
Those who testified against the bill as well as members of the committee made familiar claims that inclusion of trans girls and women in school sports for females would have a destructive impact. U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican who testified, said the bill “victimizes women” and “could decimate girls’ sports.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican known for his anti-LGBTQ+ views, said the Equality Act would outright “end women’s sports.” He also contended that it would lead to lawsuits against clergy and churches that do not endorse LGBTQ+ equality, as it states that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not provide legal cover for discrimination.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, like Cruz a member of the committee, went further by asking if the Roman Catholic Church could be sued for not ordaining women as priests or what the impact would be on religious institutions don’t allow trans girls (“biological boys,” in Graham’s words) in girls’ sports.
He directed the questions to Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, who was a witness in favor of the act. David replied, “We have a very, very old amendment called the First Amendment, and that protects religious institutions from being preferred or discriminated against in statutes. This is not new.”
David pointed out that there are states that have had inclusive antidiscrimination protections on the books since the 1970s and problems have not emerged. When Graham asked how the Equality Act would apply to religious institutions that engage in secular activities, such as renting out properties, David said secular activities would be classified as public accommodations under the act only if they are open to the general public, not if they are limited to members of the faith.
Others who brought up sports or religious discrimination included Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who asked if the Equality Act, in fostering trans inclusion in sports, would allow boys to expose their penises to girls in locker rooms or girls to expose their genitalia. Even Abigail Shrier, an author who opposes trans inclusion, appeared floored by the question, saying, “I don’t believe the bill addresses genitalia.”
Durbin closed the hearing by noting, like David, that many states already have nondiscrimination laws covering LGBTQ+ people and allow trans youth to competed in sports consistent with their gender identity, and there have not been disastrous consequences. “We have been waiting for this avalanche of problems … but they haven’t really surfaced,” he said.
He said he would work to pass the act and would consider the reservations that have been raised about it, but added, “I do not believe some of the things that have been suggested as products of the Equality Act.”
He pointed out that there has historically been misuse of religion to justify discrimination. The Ku Klux Klan, in terrorizing Black Americans and others, adopted a religious symbol, he said: “They were not burning question marks, they were burning a cross.”
Durbin also said that previous dire predictions made about the effects of LGBTQ+ equality, such as marriage equality destroying the institution, have not come to pass. “Obergefell [the marriage equality case] was decided six years ago, and my wife and I are still married,” the senator said.
Watch the full hearing below.