Gay Rights and the Expansion of the Moral Sphere

The advance in gay right in the US represents the continued expansion of the moral sphere and the protection of forms of life previously marginalized and repressed. To see this, one has only to consider the prospects for gay life a century ago compared to today. The protections of the civil rights of gay people is part of the ongoing advance of rights in the US.

Today’s New York Times does a good job showing that progress is part of an ongoing marathon. When a battle is won, we proceed directly to the next front:

Exhilarated by the Supreme Court’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, gay rights leaders have turned their sights to what they see as the next big battle: obtaining federal, state and local legal protections in employment, housing, commerce and other arenas, just like those barring discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin.

While a major victory has been scored, gay people still face major discrimination and bigotry, and can often be made into second-class citizens. Many states, such as Tennessee, still allow open discrimination against gay people. Other states offer protections against bigotry.

At least 22 states bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, and most of them also offer protections to transgender people.

Tennessee is one of the majority of states that do not bar such discrimination. There, in East Nashville, Tiffany Cannon and Lauren Horbal thought they had found the perfect house to share with a friend, and the landlord seemed ready to rent when they applied in April.

Then he called them to ask what their relationship with each other was, Ms. Horbal, 26, recalled.

She said that when the landlord learned that she and Ms. Cannon, 25, were partners, he said, “I’m not comfortable with that.” He refused to process their application, even after they offered to raise their rent by $150, to $700 a month, Ms. Horbal said.

The women, both restaurant workers, are still looking for a place to live.

The inconsistency among the states on a question of basic rights calls for a federal-level policy governing the matter. Anti-gay advocates insist that they have the right to discriminate because this is part of the belief system, and they cannot be made to “violate” their beliefs by serving gay people. The moral poverty of this proposition becomes obvious if we change the terms from “gay” to “black” or “Jewish” or “female.” If the landlord in the example above were “uncomfortable” with renting to one of these identity categories, there would be an uproar. Or, more likely, it wouldn’t happen in the first place because of laws protecting Jews, blacks, and women against such second-class treatment.

Other forms of discrimination result merely from typical bigotry:

Patricia Dawson of Pangburn, Ark., 46, hopes to join that list. Ms. Dawson, who grew up as Steven, had more than 15 years’ experience as an industrial electrician and had been a rising employee at H & H Electric, an industrial contractor, for four years when she informed her boss in 2012 that she was transitioning to female and had changed her name.

The boss, she said in a Title VII-based lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, told her to keep her plans secret and not to “rock the boat” with clients.

When her identity became obvious and gossip raged at the work site, she said, the boss said to her, “I’m sorry, Steve, you do great work, but you are too much of a distraction, and I am going to have to let you go.”

There is a tension brewing between state and the federal government, with the latter playing a long strategy of slowly amping up the federal protections of gays:

Although a majority of states lack such protections, federal orders and court decisions, especially in employment, are gradually offering more safeguards.

With executive orders last year, President Obama barred discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal agencies and federal contractors, including companies employing about one in five American workers, Mr. Sears said.

At the same time, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing federal law in the workplace, has determined that discrimination against gay men, lesbians and transgender people amounts to illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and it is bringing or endorsing lawsuits under that provision.

The battle terrain is thus emerging clearly, with an religious conservatives on one side, insisting they have a right to discriminate based on religious grounds, since God is so clearly on their side, and civil rights advocates, claiming that all identity categories, from gender to race to sexuality should be protected against discrimination.

“People are going to realize that you can get married in the morning and be fired from your job or refused entry to a restaurant in the afternoon,” Mr. Merkley said. “That is unacceptable.”

But the effort will take years, he said, because it appears unlikely that Republican committee heads in Congress will advance such a bill.

In the emerging state-by-state battles for antidiscrimination laws, the strongest opposition has come from conservative religious groups that have been alarmed by a few well-publicized cases, like that of a florist in Washington State who was fined for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

“We’ve got good reason to be concerned about these laws, because they’ve been found to be coercive where they’ve been enacted,” said Greg Scott, vice president of communications at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group.

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