Despite the increased societal acceptance of people in the LGBTQ community, 29 states have failed to pass anti-discrimination laws to protect them. To address this, the Equality Act—a federal bill to provide national protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit and the jury system—passed the House of Representatives for the second time on February 25. However, the media coverage of the bill has underrepresented LGBTQ people and propagated narratives that are harmful for the same people the Equality Act seeks to protect.
As Ari Drennen, a communications staffer at the Center for American Progress, pointed out in a Twitter thread, several major outlets failed to quote even a single trans person in their stories. Her list included the New York Times (2/25/21), the Washington Post (2/25/21), CNN (2/25/21), NBC (2/25/21), CBS (2/25/21), The Hill (2/25/21) and USA Today (2/25/21). (The Washington Post later added a quote from Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, one of the country’s first openly transgender elected officials.)
“Shutting trans people out of mainstream discussions of our rights means these conversations are missing their most moving element,” Drennen explained in a tweet. “I have friends who’ve been denied jobs or housing for being trans. They need protection, but you wouldn’t know it from the news.”
Other parts of the LGBTQ community fared only slightly better in most coverage. Although Rep. David Cicilline, an openly gay co-sponsor of the bill, was quoted in most breaking news articles in major outlets (though not necessarily with any identification of him as gay), he was often the only one. USA Today (2/25/21) was one of the only major outlets to push beyond this apparent invisible limit and quote three LGBTQ people. Those included Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California—the first openly gay person of color in Congress—and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first LGBTQ woman elected to Congress in 1999 and to the Senate in 2012. Both congressmembers emphasized how important the bill is for ensuring the rights of LGBTQ people.
While sidelining LGBTQ sources, journalists focused on the Republican opposition—which meant that rather than hearing about the content of the bill and how it could codify millions of Americans’ civil liberties and concretely impact their lives, readers were treated to largely unchallenged reprintings of the GOP’s hateful and dangerous rhetoric on the issue.
A Politico headline (2/25/21) put that approach on full display: “Historic LGBTQ Rights Bill Passes—After Exposing GOP Divisions.” The piece, by Olivia Beavers and Melanie Zanona, highlighted the Republican Party’s newest attention-seeking conspiracy theorist, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose anti-trans harassment of fellow Rep. Marie Newman, who has a transgender daughter, drew widespread condemnation. “Some Republicans,” Politico reported,
worry that [Greene’s] controversial antics…have stomped on their attempts to sensitively communicate why they are opposed to the LGBTQ rights bill. Most Republicans say they oppose the measure due to its perceived infringement on religious freedom, not out of discriminatory sentiment toward LGBTQ people — a fine line that Greene has effectively erased.
But Politico did its best to help out the GOP’s attempts to “sensitively communicate.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was described as opposing the bill based on “its effects on religious liberties and women’s sports,” saying it is part of a Democratic “onslaught against freedom of religion—for girls’ sports as well.” Politico allowed him to make these claims without a shred of evidence.
Trans women and men have been participating in sports, and efforts to exclude them are not about “protection” but rather control, and the ongoing effort to erase trans people from all facets of society. In fact, scientists have repeatedly stated that there is no single biological determinate for sex, and a person’s sex assigned at birth does not innately yield them advantages or disadvantages in any manner of competition.
The piece also quoted Rep. Chris Stewart, author of a “compromise” bill “aimed at protecting LGBTQ rights as well as religious freedom”: “‘It isn’t an either-or,’ Stewart said, referring to protecting LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. ‘We believe it can be both.'”
But alas, Beavers and Zanona wrote, “that message has been complicated by Greene”—not, apparently, by the fact that civil rights and LGBTQ groups have pointed out that Stewart’s bill is “deeply dangerous” and would not just “essentially licens[e] discrimination against LGBTQ people and women,” but also “erode protections that already exist for people based on race, sex and religion,” a stance only briefly and vaguely referenced in the article.
Politico wasn’t alone in its problematic approach to the Equality Act. CNN (2/25/21) reported that “opponents say [the bill] would force women and girls to share private spaces with men,” and that “critics also say the bill could facilitate men participating in women’s sports if they identify as female”—formulations that accept the transphobic misgendering of trans women, akin to reporting that “critics of the Civil Rights Act say that it would give subhumans the same rights as people.”
CNN went on to quote Republican Rep. Andy Biggs, who called the bill a “devastating attack on humanity,” and claimed that it “recklessly requires girl’s and women’s restrooms, lockers, gyms or any place a female might seek privacy, to surrender that privacy to biological males.”
The only rebuttal CNN offered to these gross misrepresentations came in the form of vague quotes from Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, calling Republicans “mean” and emphasizing the need for “pride.”
NBC (2/25/21) quoted the website of the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank at length, giving a platform to baseless claims about what would result from the bill’s passage—from stating that people might lose their jobs or businesses if they don’t “conform to new sexual norms,” to asserting that the bill would “leave women vulnerable to sexual assault.” The network’s choice to regurgitate the think tank’s claim about sexual assault is particularly abominable considering trans people face staggering, unconscionable rates of violence, including sexual assault and murder.
The Hill (2/25/21) also quoted lies about the bill without offering any rejoinders. It printed a lengthy excerpt from Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who made many aggressive claims about abortions, surgeries and gender identity during his floor speech about the bill. That quote followed several paragraphs stating similar conservative claims about freedom and religious liberty; the paragraph after it merely mentioned a number of large companies that support the bill.
Each of these outlets offered influential platforms to Republicans to lambast the bill and vilify the LGBTQ community with antiquated and deeply harmful talking points. Crucially, opponents were given space to make false or misleading claims about the impact of the bill, while proponents were rarely given a chance to offer a vision of what they hoped the bill would accomplish.
What those advocates have made clear, outside of these articles, is that the Equality Act would finally expand and codify the tenuous anti-discrimination protections LGBTQ people currently have, making them significantly harder to take away. As Imara Jones, the creator of TransLash Media and a trans woman of color, explained on MSNBC (2/28/21):
As long as people can use their own discrimination as a basis to deny us equal access to housing, to education, to health care, to the full range of things that everyone else has, makes the case that we need the Equality Act.
That lack of equality, she said, “underscores that the work of this country remains fundamentally undone.”
International news outlets like the BBC (2/26/21) and the Guardian (2/25/21) have done a significantly better job of covering the bill’s passage. “Equality Act: US House Passes Sweeping LGBTQ+ Rights Bill,” read the Guardian headline above a piece that focused on the bill’s real implications. The article quoted a diverse set of LGBTQ people, including Janson Wu, executive director of GLAAD and a gay Asian American—though it failed to quote a trans person in its reporting.
The British paper also mentioned the Republican opposition and the uphill battle the bill faced in the Senate, but, importantly, it did so without giving a platform to unsubstantiated claims and hate speech. By withholding that platform, it also protects LGBTQ people. US outlets should take a cue from their British counterparts.
Featured image: Photo of rainbow flags accompanying a BBC story (2/26/21) about the Equality Act.
This post was originally published on FAIR.