Commentary Law and Policy

‘Asterisk Equality’ Isn’t Real Equality: Fighting for an ENDA Without Exemptions

Kirin Kanakkanatt

To accept the broad religious exemptions in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, is in an insult to the incredible progress the LGBTQ community has already made.

I attended Catholic school in Ohio for 13 years. For 13 years, I sat daily in religion classes and made weekly trips to church. I was taught to believe in a god that loved all of creation. I was taught to believe in a god that created a beautiful diversity of humanity. Sadly, the god being invoked today by conservative legislators bears no resemblance to the god I encountered in Catholic school. This god—a god of political ambition and radical ideology—has no place in my education, in my uterus, or in my civil liberties.

There is a bill pending in the Senate right now that would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has been languishing in Congress for decades. Despite popular support for passing the bill, legislators are invoking the god of political ambition and radical ideology to include a broad religious exemption in the bill—and there’s a threat of that exemption becoming even broader as ENDA is debated on the Senate floor this week.

To accept the broad religious exemptions in ENDA is in an insult to the incredible progress the LGBTQ community has already made. We come from a history of people who fought tirelessly to humanize our lived experiences. Our community, our culture, and our souls are rooted in the traditions of those warriors who have blazed trails ahead of us.

For them, and for us, separate but equal is not good enough.

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As a first-generation Indian-American queer woman who is cloaked in “otherness” every day, I am distinctly aware of how being seen as “other” informs one’s reality. Historically marginalized communities are used to fighting for our very humanity. We fight because we are separate, and we fight to become equal.

We have been fighting for workplace equality for decades. This fight is steeped in generations of political complicity with inequality—of forced closets, of dehumanization, of separation. And this is the same fight that others who have been marginalized have fought and continue to fight.

Across the country right now, dozens of court cases are being fought over whether employers have the legal right to impose their personal beliefs on contraception and reproduction on their employees. The fight for the right to make one’s own decisions about health, family, and body is very similar to what we’re facing in the fight for employment fairness. And our opponents are the same—they ascribe to the same god of political ambition and radical ideology, and will not stop until their religious bigotry is preserved and protected by the Constitution, regardless of whose humanity that bigotry tramples upon.

Conservatives are using bigotry and shame, disguised as “religious liberty,” to keep queer people and women “in our place.” They are offering us “asterisk equality”—as long as that asterisk exempts them from actually granting equality.

I live an intersectional life. My identity meets at the intersection of oppressions, and yet I find power in resisting that oppression—standing arm in arm with those who believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Every time we give in to an oppressive piece of legislation, we allow a lesbian teacher at a Catholic school to get fired. Every time we remain silent as employers force their personal beliefs on their employees, we tell a woman that she has no right to govern her own body. Every time we allow the radical right to chip away at the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, we admit that we are “less than.”

When I was coming to terms with my queerness, I was told “it gets better.” I have come to learn that it gets better only when we choose to make it better. After decades of fighting to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, or by our glitter pumps, it is unacceptable to be fed watered-down legislation posing as liberation. We deserve justice everywhere—and I intend to lift my voice to call on the Senate to deliver it.

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