Another Viewpoint: Feds must act to end discrimination against LGBTQ Americans

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It has been just over a decade since my husband Kirk and I moved to Maine, where I serve as rabbi at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, a welcoming Reform Jewish community.

In making the decision to leave Minnesota for Maine, a key consideration was the strength of the state and local legal protections for LGBTQ people in our new home. We were well aware that more than half the states lacked basic nondiscrimination laws regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

Kirk and I are now dads to a 6-year-old son, and we are even more mindful of the importance of such legal protections – and of the stark disparities among states in providing them.

As we think about taking the kinds of road trips that were so important for me and my brother growing up in New Jersey, we regret that in many states we would love to visit our family lacks the fundamental legal respect accorded to a family with a 6-year-old where the parents are a mom and a dad. Like any parent, the safety and security of our son are always foremost in our minds.

As a faith leader, however, my concerns extend beyond my own family.

Discrimination is a daily reality in the lives of millions of LGBTQ Americans, and our youth face particularly harsh circumstances. Twenty-eight percent of LGBTQ young people have experienced homelessness at some point in their life, according to a recent nationwide survey. Too often, they are victims of rejection and even violence in their family homes, in foster care, or in congregate shelter facilities. Some youth resort to surviving on the streets, sometimes while engaging in dangerous survival sex work.

Transgender Americans also encounter pervasive discrimination that often turns violent. Last year, a record 57 transgender or gender non-conforming people – most of them women of color – were killed.

These disturbing statistics are only the most glaring in an overall environment where a third of all LGBTQ Americans – including 60 percent of transgender people – report having experienced discrimination in the previous year, according to a 2020 survey.

It’s well past time for Congress to act to combat this discrimination nationwide. The House of Representatives has already passed comprehensive federal protections, but the Senate has yet to debate such legislation. As a Mainer, I am proud that our two senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, have consistently advocated for federal action. I am counting on both of them to help lead the effort to get the job done this year.

My support for a federal nondiscrimination law is not based on my being a gay man and a gay dad alone. LGBTQ equality is a cornerstone value of Jewish tradition, which emphasizes that we are all made in God’s image. Throughout our religious texts, we are reminded time and again to protect the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – the biblical community’s most vulnerable people – because we know what it is like to be vulnerable, having been strangers in Egypt. We have a moral and religious obligation to extend protections to those most vulnerable today.

Sadly, many in the LGBTQ community are becoming increasingly vulnerable in the current political climate. Last year, more than 250 bills were introduced in legislatures in 31 states, and 10 states adopted such punitive measures. That pattern has escalated dramatically this year, with our youth and transgender people under particular attack.

Although much of this backlash is dressed up in religious justifications, in fact, people of faith nationwide find in their religious tradition exactly what I see in my Jewish tradition: an unambiguous call to stand with our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. The most recent findings from the Public Religion Research Institute show that 69 percent of religious Americans support federal nondiscrimination protections, with strong majority support among Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.

I look forward to Collins and King bringing together other like-minded legislators and helping our nation achieve what’s already been accomplished in Maine: the enactment of protections to free LGBTQ people from the burdens of discrimination they face as they pursue the same opportunities enjoyed by every other American.

Rabbi Jared Saks leads Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland. Contact him at [email protected].