WASHINGTON — On Wednesday morning, a small crowd of people got a glimpse into how the longtime opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights will meet its end.
It didn’t happen at a grand rally or pride parade or even in the Oval Office or on the steps of the Supreme Court. Instead, it happened in a nondescript Senate hearing room on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
The opposition to LGBT rights, a regular part of politics in the not-so-distant past, was given no voice as a Senate committee voted 15-7 in favor of legislation that would ban anti-LGBT job discrimination by most employers across the country.
There remain wide swaths of the country where virulent anti-LGBT attitudes control the dialogue, but the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee provided an unexpected view Wednesday into what the next phase of LGBT rights battle could look like.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, as Chairman Tom Harkin’s committee took up a vote of the legislation for the first time in more than a decade.
ENDA, in some ways, is past its time. If judging by public opinion, it should have been passed years ago — and many people tell pollsters that they already think it is law. But, the opposition to LGBT rights has thus far kept a foothold in Congress, with members regularly and consistently providing a voice to those views.
Wednesday was different. The only senator present who voted against sending the bill to the floor Wednesday was the ranking Republican on the committee, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander. The other six “no” votes were cast by proxy. Even Alexander, though, said nothing against the bill. To the contrary, he praised changes and compromises made to the bill already, suggested more that he would like to see, and praised the bill’s sole Republican sponsor on the committee.
“I want to commend Sen. [Mark] Kirk for his leadership on this issue over the years, and thank him for his hard work on this bill, and give him now the opportunity to make the opening statement,” Alexander said, giving Kirk the floor to push for the bill’s passage.
Kirk then used his opening statement to tie ENDA’s passage to historic efforts to advance civil rights in America.
“In Illinois, we all measure ourselves against the career of Abraham Lincoln and think about the legacy that that means. I would say that I measure myself against Everett Dirksen and his support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Republican leadership as the best moment in his career,” Kirk said. “[With] this legislation, I’m very proud to do it in the tradition of Illinois’ Dirksen and Lincoln.”
In addition to Alexander and Kirk, Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the only other Republican senator in attendance — and she joined Kirk in voting yes. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a longtime vote target on ENDA for LGBT advocates, finally gave them the yes vote they wanted.
“I voted for it because it prohibits discrimination that should not occur in the workplace, it protects the rights of religious entities, and minimizes legal burdens on employers,” Hatch said in a statement provided to The Washington Blade following his “yes” vote, which was cast by proxy.
“Sen. Hatch is a leader and today he stepped up,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin told BuzzFeed after the vote. “What is clear today is that this bill is advancing with bipartisan support. … You never know exactly what motivates every single one of these folks up here, but this issue, of all issues, should be nonpartisan.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act, Griffin’s statement, in some ways a posturing soundbite, had the added power of several votes and statements to back it up. The Senate committee, in fact, looked like one would expect a place to look anti-LGBT sentiment has lost its political savor.
As the bill moves on — to the floor of the Senate this fall most likely, and then over to the House if the Senate, as Harkin expects, passes the bill — someone will give those views opposed to LGBT rights voice yet again.
There were, though, no such voices on Wednesday.
The movement for LGBT rights takes a heavier lift, of course, than just the opposition’s silence. It takes yes votes, it takes action, it takes genuinely changed minds, and it takes time.
But, for the movement against LGBT rights, it will have reached its end when there’s no one left who is willing to voice those views.
In that Senate committee Wednesday — for the first time on the national legislative stage — people saw what that will look like.
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