Equality before the law is an American value articulated in our Constitution. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people today are denied many of the basic rights that most Americans enjoy and continue to be treated unfairly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a gay man, and as a Representative of 614,465 Americans in Colorado's 2nd district, I am strongly committed to ending discrimination of all kinds.
The struggle for equal rights in the United States is a dilemma that has helped shape our society into what it is today. With every step forward we add to the legacy of the greatest country in the world. We worked to balance the inequities of citizenship, bestowed voting rights to the previously unacknowledged, and are now closing the gap on rewarding merit among gender and races.
We are on the cusp of recognizing the inherent need for equality in more than just skin color, gender or religion. Our growing understanding of what it means to discriminate, and the damage it inflicts, is enhanced with each passing year and has grown to reflect our collective understanding of freedom for all.
As the first openly gay elected U.S. Congressman, I experience the evolution of our thinking on a daily basis. If it weren't for the butting of heads, frustrated cries and ceaseless battles for others to be treated equally, I would not be sitting here today. I stand on the shoulders of those that came before me.
I am proud to relate our recent victories and the future challenges that will serve as our opportunities to completely level the playing field. With a focus on our nation's value of freedom and an unflagging insistence on equality for all, we can look forward to a time when equal rights for all, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity, is a given.
Student Non-Discrimination Act:
Our nation's schools should be a place of study and social growth, preparing youth for the challenges of an ever-changing world. Unfortunately, students who are or perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender are discriminated against every day. These individuals are subject to harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence. Numerous studies have demonstrated that discrimination in schools has contributed to high rates of absenteeism, dropout, adverse health consequences, and academic underachievement among LGBT youth. For a demographic that already faces higher than average suicide rates, it should be a top priority to engender a scholastic environment where every student can feel safe and encouraged.
While current Federal statutes affords protected status to students on the basis of their race, gender, color, national origin, religion, and disability, they fail to provide civil protections explicitly based on sexual orientation or gender identity. To address this issue, I introduced H.R. 4350, the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) in the House of Representatives. This legislation prohibits any school program or activity that condones discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity from receiving federal assistance.
Currently, I proudly serve as co-chairman of the LGBT Equality Caucus, along with Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Barney Frank (D-MA). We boast a total of 91 Members of Congress who are strongly committed to ensuring that human rights for LGBT people in the U.S. and around the world are fully protected. The LGBT Caucus was established in June 2008 and is committed to working towards the extension of equal rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, the elimination of hate-motivated violence, and the improved health and well being for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
Eliminating "Don't Ask Don't Tell":
I am strongly opposed to the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy regarding gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. military. DADT is the current law prohibiting lesbians and gays from serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces, and is the only law in the country that requires people to be dishonest about their personal lives in order to avoid being fired. The passage of DADT has resulted in the discharge of over 13,000 servicemen and women from the military.
Our armed forces should be focused on retaining the best and brightest in the pursuit of protecting our national security. Instead, DADT has led to the discharge of "mission critical" service members (including linguists, medics, and pilots), false accusations of straight officers, formidable activity such as spying and blackmailing of friends and coworkers, and a rise in anti-LGBT harassment within the armed forces. I am an original cosponsor of Representative Patrick Murphy's (D-PA) legislation, H.R. 1283, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would end this counterproductive policy. If passed, H.R. 1283 will enable our LGBT service members to serve our country openly and proudly. The United States prides itself on possessing an indomitable military force and I believe that to address the mounting security challenges facing our country we must end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and provide equal rights to the brave men and women who have devoted their lives to keeping our country and way of life safe and secure.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act:
Countless qualified and hardworking Americans are denied job opportunities, fired, or otherwise discriminated against just because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Currently, there fails to be a federal law that consistently protects LGBT individuals from employment discrimination, and as a result, they face serious mistreatment in the work force. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. ENDA affords all Americans basic employment protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice. It extends federal employment discrimination protections already in place for race, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability to include sexual orientation and gender identity. This legislation was reintroduced on June 24, 2009 and currently has 202 cosponsors. I am proud to report that I am an original cosponsor of this bill and I am fully committed to working towards its passage in the House of Representatives.
Hate crimes occur every day and in every state, perpetuating a climate of fear in minority communities--including the LGBT community. What makes these crimes so odious is that they are not just crimes against an individual; they are crimes against entire communities and the very values and ideals upon which our country was founded. Making matters worse, most local law enforcement agencies currently lack the necessary resources to effectively investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. To address this issue, I became an original cosponsor of H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009 increasing federal authority to investigate and prosecute such crimes and help local communities tackle the problem more effectively. Specifically, it also expands existing federal hate crimes laws to cover crimes committed because of the victim's gender or sexual orientation.
Defense of Marriage Act and Respect for Marriage Act:
Currently, there are over 1,100 protections and responsibilities bestowed on married couples by the federal government. Unfortunately, millions of Americans are denied the freedom to marry because of their sexual orientation. While several states in recent years have extended equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) singles out lawfully married same-sex couples for unequal treatment under federal law. DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing their marriages for any purpose, and in addition, DOMA denies same-sex couples access to benefits in states that do not recognize their marriages. I was shocked and disappointed to learn that President Obama chose to defend DOMA in federal court, especially given his campaign promise to call for a full repeal of DOMA. President Obama must honor his promise to repeal this law and end its divisive and harmful impact on our nation. I strongly oppose DOMA, and am working hard to repeal this discriminatory law.
The Respect for Marriage Act (RMA) would repeal DOMA and restores the rights of all lawfully married couples, including same-sex couples, to receive the benefits of marriage under federal law. If same-sex couples with valid marriages decide to move or travel to another state, RMA provides them with certainty that federal benefits and protections would carry over from state to state. Under RMA, same-sex couples and their families would be eligible for important federal benefits and protections such as family and medical leave or Social Security spousal and survivors' benefits. The bill does not require states that have not yet enacted legal protections for same-sex couples to recognize a marriage, nor does it obligate any person, state, locality, or religious organization to celebrate or license a marriage between two persons of the same sex. This legislation only requires the federal government to equally apply its policy of looking to the states in determining what legal relationships are eligible for federal benefits. Currently, same sex couples may marry in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia. I am an original and proud cosponsor of RMA, and I will continue to work tirelessly until this legislation is signed into law.
Iraqi LGBT Rights:
I have sought to address the plight of LGBT Iraqi people. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, LGBT Iraqi citizens have been subjected to more active and severe discrimination, violence and government execution. There have been numerous reports that LGBT Iraqis are being targeted, detained, raped, tortured and then executed by Ministry of the Interior Special Forces. My personal visit in 2009 revealed the unfortunate reality that LGBT Iraqis must face every day.
Underground networks use safe houses to help escort LGBT Iraqis out of the country, namely to Kurdistan and then Lebanon, Jordan or Syria. To address this issue, Representatives Baldwin, Frank, and myself sent a letter on the matter to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, calling on the U.S. embassy in Iraq to prioritize an investigation of the allegations and work with the Iraqi government to end the executions of LGBT Iraqis. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also received a letter from me and fellow members of Congress, urging the State Department to pressure the Iraqi government to investigate and end these executions, find those responsible and take all necessary actions to protect LGBT Iraqis. Such disturbing violations of human rights should not be ignored and the United States should not stand idly by while billions of taxpayer dollars are used to support their government. I will continue to spotlight their oppression and work as a vocal advocate for LGBT human rights in Iraq and around the world.
Immigration and UNITE:
I have worked to deal with the injustice faced by same-sex, bi-national couples. Right now, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents may sponsor their spouses (and other immediate family members) for immigration purposes. However, same-sex partners of U.S. citizens and permanent residents are not considered "spouses," and their partners cannot sponsor them for family-based immigration. As a result, many of these families are torn apart. In response, I have cosponsored H.R. 1024, the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which provides lesbian and gay individuals the same opportunities to sponsor their partners for immigration. Like the current process for different-sex couples, UAFA has requirements such as providing proof of the relationship, including affidavits from friends and family or evidence of financial support. As with current immigration laws for married couples, UAFA would impose harsh penalties for fraud, including up to five years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines. The United States lags behind 19 countries that recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes, and of those 19, none of them have reported fraud problems associated with its decision to allow immigration equality for its citizens. I strongly support reforming our broken immigration system, and UAFA is a crucial step that would remedy the injustice of millions of U.S citizens and their same-sex partners from being torn apart.
Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act:
In June 2009, President Obama called for equal employment benefits for federal employees and issued an executive memorandum that granted some benefits to employees' same-sex partners. Recently, Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation that would fully extend those benefits to match ones that spouses of non-LGBT employees receive.
It is time that the federal government steps up and recognizes the miscarriage of justice happening in its own backyard. A large and growing number of America's major corporations, as well as state and local governments and educational institutions, have extended their employee benefit programs to cover their employees' committed domestic partners. We can look to over half of the Fortune 500 companies that now offer health benefits to employees' domestic partners, up from just 25 percent in 2000. Overall, more than 8,000 private-sector companies make such benefits available to employees' domestic partners, as do several hundred state and local governments, colleges and universities.
I am proud to be an original cosponsor of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would bring the federal government's employee policy up to speed with a majority of Fortune 500 companies. Finally benefits that employees have come to expect, such as disability, family, medical, emergency leave and long-term-care insurance will be available to LGBT employees and their partners.