For Sarah Kate Ellis, Tuesday is an all or nothing political event: The outcome of the Georgia Senate runoffs, she said, will determine whether LGBTQ+ Americans can be turned away from renting an apartment or eating at a restaurant.
“This is everything,” Ellis said.
Ellis is president and CEO of GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization. When she’s eyeing Tuesday’s Senate runoffs in Georgia, she’s thinking about the Equality Act, the landmark LGBTQ+ civil rights legislation that has languished in Congress for nearly five decades.
“We have not been able to move that piece of legislation forward because of the current configuration of the Senate,” Ellis said, referring to the fact the Republicans have historically opposed the measure.
The pair of races will determine which party controls the Senate — Republicans need to win one seat to maintain control, and Democrats need to win two. But for advocates like Ellis, a win for the Democrats isn’t just about tipping Senate control to Democrats — both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have vowed to pass the Equality Act. GLAAD has criticized incumbent Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for faltering on LGBTQ+ issues.
If passed, the Equality Act would be the most substantial LGBTQ+ rights law enacted in the United States. The bill bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public accommodations, education and employment, among other things. A poll by GLAAD last October found that that 89 percent of straight cisgender Americans mistakenly believed federal law already protected people from being evicted because they are LGBTQ+.
Advocates are especially anxious to pass the Equality Act in 2021 now that the Supreme Court tilts conservative.
“If you look at the last five years, our rights have been decided at the Supreme Court,” Ellis said, referring to marriage equality and the court’s ruling last June that granted LGBTQ+ workplace protections.
“Whether or not we get to exist as full humans in society in the United States of America has really fallen at the steps of the Supreme Court,” she said.
Ellis sees Congress as the next path for those protections. That might be a long shot, however. Congress has rarely passed pro-LGBTQ+ legislation, even when Democrats controlled both chambers. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which added sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to hate crime protections. In 2010, the House and Senate also repealed the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of discharging LGBTQ+ service members.
However, it’s not just the fate of the Equality Act that has LGBTQ+ organizations watching Tuesday’s results. Perdue and Loeffler have the backing of anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations. Perdue has a 100 percent rating from Family Research Council Action, the political arm of the anti-LGBTQ+ organization of the same name. Loeffler introduced a bill last year that aimed to ban schools from allowing transgender girls to participate on girls’ sports teams.
Tuesday’s ballots represent stark differences for LGBTQ+ Georgians, said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
“Loeffler and Perdue have long track records of being very vocal opponents of LGBTQ equality and measures, whether at the state or federal levels that are associated with progress,” Beach-Ferrara said. “In both Ossoff and Warnock, we have people who before they ran for office …and certainly in their roles as candidates have been very vocal supporters of LGBTQ equality and very clearly understand LGBTQ equality as part of a much broader swath of related civil rights issues.”
She continued: “It’s hard to think of a set of voting circumstances that would feel quite so consequential or quite so determinative of the path our country would be on in the next few years.”
A campaign spokesperson for Loeffler did not respond to a request to comment for this article. The Perdue campaign could not be reached by deadline.