The first-ever congressional hearing on the Equality Act was a testimony to the strength of evidence and public support for updating nondiscrimination laws to protect LGBTQ people, while Republicans trotted out their favorite anti-trans activist to inject conspiracies into the congressional record.
The U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Tuesday held a full committee hearing on the legislation, which would update civil rights law prohibiting discrimination to define sex as explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity, protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing, employment, credit, and places of public accommodation.
As several witnesses called by Democrats reminded the committee, nearly half of states have updated their nondiscrimination laws to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people. The Equality Act is the latest iteration of 40 years of federal legislation designed to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Since the initial introduction of Rep. Bella Abzug’s (D-NY) Equality Act of 1974, more than 20 states have passed similar legislation. But federal protections remain elusive.
As two witnesses illustrated, these protections are the difference between employment and unemployment, dignity and humiliation. Carter Brown, founder and executive director of Black Transmen Inc. shared how having his transgender status outed at work led to ostracism by his colleagues and his eventual termination. Jami Contreras told of how she and her wife went through the painstaking process of choosing the best pediatrician for their newborn baby, only to have that pediatrician deny them service.
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Committee Chairperson Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) opened the hearing with a message to LGBTQ people: “To the transgender and gender nonconforming youth, teens, and adults who are about to have their right to participate in sports and be themselves in school, work, and in their daily lives challenged; to the same-sex couples who are about to hear suggestions that they just take their business elsewhere, that they adopt children elsewhere, that they exist—elsewhere: We see you. We support you. And we believe in you. If you are feeling unsafe, afraid, or at risk, please reach out for help. You are worth fighting for, and we are here to fight alongside you, which is why we will be passing this bill.”
Nadler’s message was prescient, for the committee Republicans called two witnesses who swamped the record and dominated the hearing with stereotypes and conspiracy theories about transgender people.
“If the act passes in its current form as HR 5, then every right that women have fought for will cease to exist. HR 5 is a human rights violation,” said Julia Beck, a self-proclaimed lesbian radical feminist known largely for being removed from the Baltimore City LGBTQ Commission Committee on Law and Policy for her anti-transgender views. Congressional Republicans last month hid behind Beck’s anti-transgender stance during a hearing about renewing the Violence Against Women Act.
“Male rapists will go to women’s prisons and will likely assault female inmates, as has already happened in the U.K. Female survivors of rape will be unable to contest male presence in women’s shelters,” Beck continued. “Men will dominate women’s sports. Girls who would have taken first place will be denied scholastic opportunity. Women who use male pronouns to talk about men may be arrested, fined, and banned from social media platforms. Girls will stay home from school when they have their periods to avoid harassment by boys in mixed-sex toilets. Girls and women will no longer have a right to ask for female medical staff or intimate care providers, including elderly or disabled women who are at serious risk of sexual abuse. Female security officers will no longer have the right to refuse pat-down or intimate searches of males who say they are female, and women undergoing security checks will no longer have the right to refuse having those searches performed by men claiming a feminine identity.”
Beck, and the Republicans who called her as a witness, used a rhetorical technique called the Gish Gallop. The term is named after creationist Duane Gish, who would argue for creationism with a barrage of arguments, regardless of their veracity or provability, with the express intention of forcing his opponents to take time to address each of his absurd claims, diverting the focus from the real conversation.
And at the Equality Act hearing, Beck’s Gish Gallop achieved much the same effect, beginning before she spoke, with Nadler’s impactful content warning and message of hope for LGBTQ watchers.
Throughout the hearing, Republicans turned to Beck to fill the record with specious claims. They turned to the other Republican witness, Duke Law School professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman, to bolster her claims that the Equality Act would harm female athletes’ participation and achievement. But even Coleman wished to distance herself from Beck’s assertions. Upon questioning by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), Coleman conceded that her fear of trans women and girls supplanting cisgender women and girls on podiums across the world was a theoretical one; that despite the International Olympic Committee permitting transgender athletes to compete for around 15 years, and the NCAA for eight, trans women and girls were yet to dominate even one championship podium.
Rather than turning their support toward the bill, as some congressional Republicans have, the committee Republicans on Tuesday jammed the hearing record with unverified and unverifiable stereotypes and conspiracies about transgender people.
Packing the record with falsehoods has dire implications, as became clear in March when the Violence Against Women Act went to markup, and Republicans frequently cited Beck’s testimony during the reauthorization hearing as justification for their discriminatory amendments.