If you thought 2016 was a nasty, brutish year for LGBT rights across the country, 2017 is already shaping up to be much, much worse.
Over the holidays, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced that he would be reintroducing the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill first put forward in 2015. It would prevent the government from taking action against businesses that discriminate against LGBT people based on their “religious belief or moral conviction” that marriage is defined as a union solely between one man and one woman.
This bill is a trumped-up version of the “religious liberty” bills that have floated around state legislatures in the last few years. In 2015, as the governor of Indiana, Vice President-elect Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was “fixed” after a $60-million boycott of the state. Another such law was passed in Mississippi last April but was later struck down in federal court.
Under the First Amendment Defense Act, the Colorado bakery that famously declined to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding would be able to do so legally. But the bill has the potential to do much greater harm to the LGBT community than petty discrimination.
Let’s say a transgender woman has a heart attack. Her partner calls an ambulance. The EMT on duty races to the scene but quickly learns of her gender identity. Under the First Amendment Defense Act, the medic could be permitted to deny her the emergency support that would save her life.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. In 1995, Tyra Hunter, 24, got into a car accident in Washington, D.C. Instead of helping her, the first responder shouted transphobic slurs at her. “This [expletive] ain’t no girl,” he said. “He’s got a [expletive]!” Hunter died the following day after receiving inadequate medical care.
Twenty-one years later, things haven’t changed as much as you might think, even as LGBT people gain wider visibility and acceptance.
Lambda Legal reports that over half of LGBT individuals claim to have experienced discrimination from a healthcare provider. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of trans respondents told the National Women’s Law Center in 2014 that they had been refused services from a doctor or medical professional outright. One woman claimed that when her doctor found out that she was transgender, he forced her to have a pelvic exam, despite the fact that she was being treated for a sore throat.
“The doctor invited others to look at me while he examined me and talked to them about my genitals,” she told the NWLC.
Should you be turned away from a bakery for being in a same-sex relationship, chances are that you can take your business elsewhere. But for LGBT people unable to receive basic medical care, it’s not so simple. If you’re transgender and live in a state like Texas, you might have to travel hundreds of miles to find an affirming doctor willing to treat your specific health needs.
These barriers to entry may be insurmountable to some. Because the medical community remains decades behind, particularly when it comes to trans health, many LGBT people have been forced to become their own experts. That’s not good news. The National LGBT Cancer Network reports that lesbians and bisexual women are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience health issues like diabetes, asthma and complications from obesity and are more likely to smoke.
These are the exact kinds of people need to be brought into the health industry, not excluded from it. Providing safe, comfortable environments for LGBT patients could save lives.
The First Amendment Defense Act would do more than make the healthcare system even more of a nightmare for LGBT people than it already is. The language of the bill is so broad and sweeping that critics warn the legislation could be applied in any number of ways, furthering discrimination in everything from employment and housing to everyday life.
If a gay employee has a photo of his legally wedded same-sex partner on your desk, he could be fired by his supervisor. A faith-based agency could turn away a lesbian couple who wants to adopt a child, and a landlord could legally deny their application for an apartment.
Donald Trump has already vowed to sign the First Amendment Defense Act should it cross his desk. A spokesperson for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Conn Carroll, told BuzzFeed that congressional Republicans are optimistic the bill will pass with him in the Oval Office.
In truth, this is just the start. The American Civil Liberties Union believes that 2017 will set a record for the number of anti-LGBT religious freedom bills debated by state legislatures. Last year, more than 200 pieces of legislation seeking to roll back the rights of the LGBT community in the name of faith were introduced in states ranging from Illinois and Massachusetts to Alabama. Just days into 2017, Kentucky has already filed a bill strikingly similar to the First Amendment Defense Act.
The LGBT community has more to fear from these bills than homophobic bakers. This isn’t about our wedding cakes. This is about our lives.
Nico Lang is the co-editor of the Boys anthology series. You can read his work in Rolling Stone, Salon, and the Onion A.V. Club. Find him on Twitter @nico_lang.
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