For U.S. Rep. David Cicilline ( D-Rhode Island ), the most frustrating aspect of conveying the urgency of the Equality Act, LGBT-rights legislation for which he is the chief co-sponsor, comes when he realizes that many people already think that widespread legal protections for LGBT individuals are already in place.
"When you tell people that you can be fired from your job, be denied an apartment, or denied service in a restaurant because you're gay or lesbian, they often say, 'That can't be legal," said Cicilline, shortly before a discussion he had alongside Illinois U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly ( D-Illinois ), and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg on June 19. "The truth is, in most states, it is legal."
The Equality Act amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to extend federal protections against housing, employment and public accommodations to LGBT individuals. Cicilline introduced the legislation in 2015, but it was never brought to a vote. He reintroduced the legislation in May.
He said that "ensuring that there is full protection for all members of our community, in every area of life" is paramount. "It's building those rights into existing civil rights architecture. The categories are listed: race, gender, ethnic origin. It's really the the only way to ensure that members of our community enjoy those rights."
Congress "catching up on the issue is actually our challenge," Cicilline added. He is convinced that if a vote were called on the measure it would pass.
"That's why they don't call it," added Kelly.
"The Democrats would go for it, and enough Republicans would not want to be seen voting against equality for our community. It's really up to [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan. It's up to one person."
Every member of the Democratic Caucussave two who include Illinois U.S. Representative Dan Lipinski ( 3 )signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation. Two Republicans also signed on.
"It's officially bipartisan," joked Cicilline.
Buttigieg, who this past winter mounted a campaign to become chairman of the national Democratic Party, but lost to former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, wants to build awareness about the importance of politics at the state and local levels.
"We're all obviously following the blow-by-blow of what's going on in Washington, but at the same time its often easier for people to understand the impact and implications of policy when it's at the local level," he said. "People are also more empowered at the local level."
He noted that he had just testified before Congress for the first time, noting that he had to be invited to do so. But with regards to the South Bend city council meetings, "Anybody can show up and testify. I tell people, including kids, you don't even have to be old enough to vote."
Buttigieg said he is proud that South Bend "has its own version of the Equality Act. In my first term, we passed a non-discrimination bill. It was very controversial. One of the things that made the difference at this debate that, I think went until two in the morning, was this parade of residentsgay and straight, old and young, people of color, religious peoplegetting up there and saying, 'This is what it means to me.' There was a parade of people on the other side, but they were in the harder position because they were standing in front of a body of elected officials asking for a license to continue to discriminate."
Buttigieg added, "When the vote passed, it became something that was a credit to our community."
Kelly said that local government "was where the rubber meets the road in so many ways. When I try to talk to people about both running for officeand votingI say, 'Don't forget about local.' … That's where you really get your foundation from."
Cicilline also spoke about the need for the LGBT community to cultivate allies. He praised Kelly as being "a champion for our community in the Congress. She's been a passionate and strong advocate for our community in our fight for equality. Our success is going to be marked by the willingness, in particular from our allies in Congress, to stand with us."