The Equality Act can now become law. An LGBTQ senator is blocking it.
There's a short window in which to pass the broad LGBTQ civil rights bill. It means ending the filibuster, to which Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is adamantly opposed.
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During the presidential election campaign candidate Joe Biden vowed to pass the Equality Act, a sweeping anti-discrimination bill which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ people in all spheres of American life, in his first 100 days.
“To help achieve our vision of equality, I will make enactment of the Equality Act a top legislative priority during my first 100 days — a priority that Donald Trump opposes,” Biden stated in an interview with Philadelphia Gay News’ Mark Segal. Two weeks ago, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “stands by” that promise, responding to a question by the Washington Blade’s Chris Johnson, adding, “I would say there are some actions that Congress needs to take, of course.”
The action Congress needs take is to pass the bill. The House passed it in 2019, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t allow it to be voted on in the Senate. Now, Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can bring it to a vote in the Senate, but like many other bills Democrats have pledged to pass, it will be almost impossible to get 60 votes, as Republicans will thwart it.
And that’s why the filibuster, a relic of the Jim Crow era, must be ended.
Democrats may only have control of the House and Senate for two years, so there’s been much discussion among progressives and Democrats about ending the filibuster and getting the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed, getting the minimum wage raised (if it’s not included in the Covid relief bill, which looks uncertain), offering a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants, and so much more.
To end the filibuster it would take all Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie. But among the most vocal opponents of ending the filibuster is Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who thrives on being quirky and is positioned by the media as one of the Democratic “moderates.”
In January her office put out a statement saying she is "against eliminating the filibuster, and she is not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster." She reiterated that position last week to Politico:
A bizarre transformation
It’s hard to know, however, what Sinema really thinks about the filibuster, since many of us remember her in earlier years when she attended Netroots Nation, the progressive activist conference, where she was known as a queer activist and outspoken state legislator in Arizona, a former Green Party member (who worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign) who headed campaigns against anti-LGBTQ legislation and had organized anti-Iraq war rallies.
That was before she ran for a U.S. House seat in 2012 in Arizona in a then-purple district, and ran a remarkably conservative campaign. In a book she wrote in 2009 Sinema attributes any change more to style rather than a shift in positions — saying that she didn’t accomplish much as a “bomb-thrower” when she began in the Arizona legislature, so she decided to work with Republicans.
“I’d spent all my time being a crusader for justice, a patron saint for lost causes, and I’d missed out on the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with fellow members in the legislature, lobbyists, and other state actors,” she wrote. “I hadn’t gotten any of my great policies enacted into law, and I’d seen lots of stuff I didn’t like become law.”
But Sinema’s shift was about strategic political maneuvering, a shift that wasn’t just in style but in persona and, later in the House, in her voting record on vital issues.
When I interviewed Sinema on my SiriusXM radio program in 2012, it wasn't the first time we’d spoken. I’d interviewed her at Netroots Nation, and I looked forward to speaking with her as she pursued the U.S. House seat that year.
But this time, she bizarrely couldn’t recall her own coming out experience. That’s a seminal moment for all queer people, but for her it was even bigger than for most people because it had been very public.
A colleague on the floor of the state legislature in 2005 made an insulting remark against LGBTQ people, to which Sinema replied, “'We're simply people like everyone else who want and deserve respect.” Later, reporters asked her to whom she was referring and she replied, “Duh, I’m bisexual,” making news in the Arizona media and across the country.
“I gotta be honest, I’m not sure I remember it,” Sinema actually responded when I asked her about that moment — yes, about her very public coming out — in our 2012 interview. “You know, in the early days of the legislature there were a lot of disparaging remarks about the LGBT community, and other communities.”
I was dumbfounded by that, as well as by the fact that she refused to discuss how ground-breaking it would be to have an openly bisexual House member, shifting the discussion continually — though she was endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which is all about promoting candidates who are out and proud to talk about it. Since I’m a gay talk show host with a large national LGBTQ listenership, I knew listeners would be excited to hear about her candidacy and would want to help her get elected if she addressed the issue thoughtfully. But as the discussion went nowhere, I ended the interview.
Sinema won the 2012 House race (and was re-elected twice), and her new persona — cautious, careful, sometimes vague, always deflecting anything about her sexual orientation — is what she took to her House seat, even though, strangely, she became a co-chair of the LGBTQ Equality Caucus.
She voted with Republicans in the House often, including on shutting down the government while harming Obamacare, and, most hypocritically, barring LGBTQ Syrian refugees — though she’d formerly been an attorney for Iraqi refugees. And she took that persona and voting record to her Senate race, in which she defeated Republican Martha McSally in 2018.
I understand that she’s a Democrat in Arizona, a changing but still largely Republican state. But Sinema’s often been too careful by half. She’s now opposed to keeping raising the federal minimum wage (supported by the majority of Americans in polls) in the Covid relief bill, even though more Arizonans (60%) voted to raise the minimum wage in a ballot initiative in her state than actually voted for her. She seems not to see that the base of the party has changed even in the time she’s been in the Senate, as Latino activists worked hard in Arizona and helped turn the state blue for Biden and helped send MsSally to defeat again, as Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly strode to victory.
Will Sinema’s legacy be upholding a Jim Crow relic?
More than that, we are in a critical time right now. Either Biden and the Democrats pass vital, popular legislation in the next two years — which will help them retain the House and the Senate — or they risk losing the leadership of one or both chambers as the GOP continues its gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, hamstringing Democrats and the country perhaps forever.
And for an LGBTQ senator to wield such power but block the passage of the Equality Act, which is supported by a large majority of Americans and is vital to LGBTQ people living in the 29 states with no state protections against discrimination —and as Republicans in many states right this moment are ramming through anti-LGBTQ legislation — is frankly appalling.
Both the Human Rights Campaign and the Victory Fund, two national LGBTQ groups, tout Sinema as a success story, one of only two queer U.S. senators (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin being the other). But how is Sinema successful for the LGBTQ community if she’s blocking a critical vote to protect LGBTQ people, let alone won’t even talk about being bisexual?
It’s time for those groups to speak out. But Sinema isn’t just thwarting the LGBTQ rights agenda; she, along with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia (another vocal Democratic opponent of ending the filibuster for legislation), is blocking the ability for Democrats to fulfill their full promise to the American people, and could cost us all dearly.
At the very least, legislation affecting civil rights should be exempted from the filibuster, allowing for the Voting Rights Act, the Equality Act and other bills to pass with a simple majority.
If Sinema isn’t even open to at least reforming the filibuster, the Democratic Party will be held hostage to her and her whims and political ambitions. If she stands by her commitment to save that Jim Crow relic while Republicans block these vital civil rights bills, that will be her legacy. It’s time to call her out on it.