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15 Years After Marriage Equality, Still More Work To Do in Texas

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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A same-sex couple holding hands

I was splashing with my 3-year-old Max and new baby Milo in the inflatable pool in our backyard on May 17, 2004.

How do I know where I was on that specific day? That was the day my wife Madge threw open the screen door and ran outside to tell us that marriage between people of the same sex had just been declared legal in Massachusetts. That day, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state and only the sixth jurisdiction in the world to recognize our relationship as legally equivalent to that of our straight neighbors.

After our initial glee subsided, we were left with mixed feelings. Not much changed for us in Texas until 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

The Obergefell decision was huge and impactful — affecting more than a thousand rights and benefits that accrue to legal marriage in the United States — that many of our friends and family assumed that discrimination against LGBTQ people was now against the law, and our struggles for equal rights and protections a thing of the past.

But there is still discrimination. Lots of it. And there is much work to be done.

Consider this: The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which seeks to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has been introduced in almost every Congress since 1994. It has never passed.

This year, a clutch of bills proposed in the Texas Legislature aims to make us even more vulnerable. Senate Bill 17, which purports to be “religious freedom” legislation but in reality ensures that anyone with “religious objections” can refuse to serve LGBTQ people at their place of business, passed the Senate, an ominous marker.

Another worry is SB 15, which takes aim at the cities in Texas that have municipal-level ordinances prohibiting discrimination — including Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth. Texans passed those nondiscrimination ordinances, but Sen. Brandon Creighton, the bill’s sponsor, claimed to speak for Texas values when he removed specific language that would have protected existing ordinances as well as prohibit future municipal efforts to prevent LGBTQ Texans from being denied employment or fired.

Discrimination against LGBTQ employees is a well-documented phenomenon.

In one study, two fictitious résumés were sent out for 1,700 entry-level job openings. The only difference between the two was that one mentioned having been involved in an LGBTQ organization in college. The résumés without the gay marker were called back at a rate of 11.2%, while those with the marker were called back at 7.2%. The callback gap in Texas was significantly greater than the national average.

The recent federal rollback of hate crime legislation has removed previously existing protections for Muslim people, people of color and transgender people. LGBTQ people among the undocumented, asylum seekers and refugees are frequent targets of rape, harassment, trafficking and murder. LGBTQ people continue to experience high rates of emotional, physical and financial and social violence and discrimination. According to Lambda Legal, hate crimes in 2017 made that year the deadliest yet for LGBTQ people.

As when marriage equality was debated 15 years ago, the introduction of homophobic and transphobic legislation — even laws that don’t ultimately pass — creates a toxic conversation that affects our communities, especially our youths.

But there are things Texans can do. For starters, support nondiscrimination legislation such as that in Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin, and spread it to more cities across the state such as Houston and to the federal level. Let’s make sure all of us, especially those most marginalized, are included in the next national census.

And we need to increase access to health care, especially reproductive health care, where LGBTQ people are routinely misrecognized or denied treatment. It takes persistence, movement-building, and changing hearts and minds to change public policy.

Lisa Moore is the Archibald A. Hill Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, and director of the LGBTQ Studies Program at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American Statesman.

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