Kierra Johnson’s official testimony for the record on the Equality Act submitted on March 17, 2021.
Dear Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Grassley:
Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony for the legislative record of S.393, the Equality Act. I write to urge each distinguished Senator serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of this vital piece of legislation as introduced to send it to the full United States Senate for passage.
My name is Kierra Johnson, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund. I am a bisexual Black woman who was raised in Valdosta and Lithonia, GA and Aurora, Colorado. I come from a long line of free-thinking spirits who were adventurous, resilient, loving people who cared about community. I am the daughter of a police officer and a Department of Justice employee, the granddaughter of a Korean War veteran and a bank teller, and the great-granddaughter of tobacco farmers. Prior to joining the leadership of this organization, I spent 20 years in the field of sexual health and gender justice, primarily working with young people ages 25 and younger. My service continues with the Steering Committee of All Above All, the campaign to repeal the Hyde Amendment. I am the parent of three, an auntie and a friend to many. I believe in God and maybe equally important, I believe in the power, diversity and goodness of people and led to my deep commitment to advocate for justice for all people and work to ensure our country actively respects, embraces, and values all its people. The gift of this moment is to look deep inside of our collective selves and ask, “What are the limits of Love and Justice?” I believe they are unlimited. Many faith traditions agree. Today, we can prove it.
Our country should lift up each person, including LGBTQ people, across these vast United States. Each of us has unique talents and gifts and are deserving of health, safety, love and dignity. Our ability to be a great country is made possible when we create the conditions for everyone to thrive. If we fully embrace the beauty and gifts of each of our communities and actively work to achieve equity justice and freedom, we can all rise to our full potential. Our nation has made some progress in this regard, yet enormous gaps remain. Clearly, so much more thoughtful, intentional progress is needed. The Equality Act is one key element of work towards this articulated vision and a vital and necessary piece of it.
I lead the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, the nation’s oldest national LGBTQ federal advocacy and progressive social-justice organization. The Task Force Action Fund builds political power, takes action and creates change to achieve freedom and justice for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) people and our communities. Recognizing that LGBTQ persons of color are subject to multifaceted discrimination, the Task Force Action Fund is deeply committed to achieving racial, gender, social and economic justice. Our organization has actively advocated for the non-discrimination protections set forth in the Equality Act for more than 40 years.
We advocate on behalf of people who are incredibly diverse, including people living intersectionally, often at the margins; students and other young activists; people who are Black, Indigenous and of color; and many who are transgender and gender nonbinary people. Each year for 33 years, our sister organization, the National LGBTQ Task Force (a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization), has presented Creating Change, one of the largest annual convenings of LGBTQ people and allies in the nation. In 2021, out of COVID-19 pandemic necessity, we presented Creating Change virtually, drawing 2,500+ people from the U.S. and beyond. Pre-pandemic, the Task Force traveled to hold Creating Change in the heartland, the north, the south, and up and down both coasts. Most recently we held in-person conferences in Dallas, Texas (2020) and Detroit, Michigan (2019), where more than 3,000 people attended. Demographics proved consistent for these three years. More than half of attendees identify as people of color, half are under 30 years old, nearly forty percent are transgender or gender non-conforming, and nearly one quarter have annual household incomes under $35,000.
Because of the reality of LGBTQ people’s lives, the Task Force Action Fund launched the “All of Me, All the Time” campaign to highlight the intersectional need of people with multiple marginalized identities for the passage of federal non-discrimination protections reflected in the Equality Act. Diverse LGBTQ people live as an integral part of our country in every community across the land. LGBTQ people work in every profession and hold every type of job; we live in rural areas, suburban neighborhoods, and cities. We participate in every type of civic and community activity. We all deserve to live, work, and fully participate in our communities without fear of discrimination and with protection from it. Across the country, and revealing the vulnerability of our incredibly diverse community, people who identify as LGBTQ are among those negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on our nation, including on the workforce and the economy.
Many people operate under the assumption that LGBTQ people already enjoy the rights that would be provided by the Equality Act. The irony is not simply striking, it demonstrates just how fair-minded U.S. voters are when it comes to LGBTQ people having the right to live, work and participate in our communities without fear of discrimination. The American people understand that LGBTQ people are part of the fabric of the nation, which is why 83+% support passage of the Equality Act. This is the finding of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, reporting that this result includes a majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
The Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County held that the protected characteristic of sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity in longstanding federal civil rights law. While Bostock implementation may be underway, LGBTQ people still need Congress to pass the Equality Act, codifying the decision. The Equality Act would ensure protection in key areas of life, including where existing federal civil rights laws do not provide protections on the basis of sex. Among the Equality Act’s provisions is one to add “sex” to our civil rights protections in the area of public accommodations. This section would help modernize our federal civil rights laws. Patchwork protections in states and localities leave LGBTQ people, our families, and our children highly vulnerable, especially when we are Black or brown, transgender or gender non-binary, living with multiple marginalized identities, with disabilities, in poverty, as immigrants, and in so many other situations.
Incidents of discrimination affect real people in their daily lives, with deleterious effects. Here I offer firsthand accounts of discrimination collected in 2017 from workplace colleagues and associates who are LGBTQ people of color. These are only a tiny sample of the types of real-life actions taken on a daily basis against LGBTQ people. Many of these are examples of businesses seeking to make their employees conform to gendered expectations, while other accounts demonstrate a continued desire to exclude LGBTQ people. And several show how difficult it can be to separate discrimination on the basis of race from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, when the target of the discrimination is an LGBTQ person of color.
Real-life experiences of LGBTQ people of color—and countless other untold ones—highlight the need for lasting public accommodations laws to fully to place LGBTQ people on an equal footing.
Naomi Washington Leapheart: This past June, my wife, Kentina, and I consecrated our legal marriage with a sacred wedding ceremony in the presence of our loved ones on a beach in Cape May, New Jersey. Three months later, we’re still basking in the joy of that day. Our joy is sweeter because in many ways, it is our resistance—not everyone was supportive of our union. In fact, we still ache as we remember that in January, a prospective wedding planner we considered hiring told us she couldn’t work with us because she believes in the biblical definition of marriage, which, to her, made ours illegitimate.
Kentina and I are Christian ministers. Our faith is precisely what animates our love and the decision we made to make a spiritual commitment to each other and to our communities. Yes, we are grateful that we could be legally married in any State in the country. Yet the rejection we experienced during one of the happiest seasons of our lives starkly reminded us that there is still so much more work to be done.
Preston Mitchum: I am a black gay and queer man from the Midwest. I have experienced discrimination based on my race, sexual orientation, and class, more times than imaginable. Because of what it means to be intersectional—that is, multiple marginalized identities existing at once—it is nearly impossible to determine whether I am experiencing discrimination and mistreatment on the basis of me being unapologetically Black or queer; and many times, both. In an ever-expanding and gentrifying Washington, D.C., where I now reside, it’s commonplace to be followed by law enforcement and be watched as I’m entering more expensive stores. While browsing in Georgetown, a majority-white area, I was once told to leave a store because I “was taking too long looking” just to be mocked by other staff. Not only was I in this particular store for less than 10 minutes, I was certainly not the only one. I was profiled, targeted, and belittled because of where I was and who I was perceived to be. No one defended me, no one made me feel human; and these are not isolated incidences. Every day, LGBTQ people of color wake up understanding that we can be targeted at the intersection of our identities, and it is a perpetual process of healing and understanding.
K’Danz Cruz: I was working at a retail store, and I was never allowed to start my gender-affirming transition because the management team would tell me that customers would feel uncomfortable. I was repeatedly told that the customer always comes first and that due to customer apprehension, I could not transition.
Sophia Jackson: I was working at a rehabilitation facility in San Francisco, California, which works with women and children. One day while I was on duty, my immediate supervisor said that she needed to have a conversation with me. I believed we were going to talk about me finally getting hired full time, but she started the conversation by telling me “that the Lord had brought me before her during her prayer time.” After entering into a moment of prayer she disclosed to me that she was concerned that the way I dressed and carried myself was unpleasing to God, and that I “knew God had created me to be a wife.” At that point she asked me if I was involved in a homosexual relationship with the woman that she had seen me coming to church with. I did not respond; rather, I asked why she was asking me that question because we belonged to the same church at the time. I was curious as to why this was suddenly an issue. She said that I was sending mixed messages because I presented as male. I ended up having to go on leave due to the stress, and while I was on leave my employment was terminated. I have been unemployed from that field of work ever since.
Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan: When my wife was working at a tutoring center, although the manager knew about me, my wife was forced to keep my existence hidden from the children. My wife actually had to make up a fictional male fiancé and later husband to account for the wedding rings to anyone who asked. The business claimed to be supportive of us but did not want to “upset the parents.”
Taissa Morimoto: Born to immigrant parents and raised in a predominately white neighborhood, I spent most of my adolescence trying to fit in. In order to assimilate, I would always try to hide my differences, including aspects of my race and sexual orientation. For most of my life, I didn’t feel comfortable to dress how I want, love whom I want, or be whom I want because I felt like I had to choose safety and security over being myself. I would comply when cashiers told me I should smile more, I would keep silent when restaurant owners made racist comments, and I refused to hold my girlfriend’s hand in public, all because I was scared for my safety. I was scared something could happen to me.
I thank each person named who courageously shared their experience in the public sphere in the first place, which made it possible for me to share these with you today. For additional detailed stories of discrimination, please see UCLA’s The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy’s testimony.
I turn next to the topic of faith and religious freedom. Our Faith Work Director Barbara Satin brings to her work a transgender identity as well as a deeply held faith and intense passion for equality coupled with wisdom gleaned in her 86 years of life and more than a quarter century of committed activism.
I watched with great appreciation as my home state of Minnesota in 1993 expanded its rights protections to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people – the first state in the U.S. to include transgender identity as a protected class. That action came as the result of efforts of a broad coalition of people and groups – including strong support from communities of faith.Barbara Satin, Faith Work Director
The impact on the lives of LGBTQ Minnesotans was immediate, and the long-term effect across the state has been even more important when you consider that the law has been in place for nearly 30 years. More than a generation of Minnesotans have grown up in a society where all individuals, whether queer or straight, have their rights protected by law. And the dread expressed by critics of the new law – including those fearful of its impact on religious freedom – have never emerged.
Minnesota, as well as the other states that have enacted protections for all LGBTQ folks, offer examples of the impact that the Equality Act can have on the nation as a whole.
The Equality Act is an example of upholding the American traditions of religious freedom. LGBTQ people belong to every faith tradition, reflected in the fact that more than 5 million of us are people of faith whose religious views deserve respect related to the need for the Equality Act. It is axiomatic in our deeply pluralistic society that no one faith perspective may hold a monopoly on how laws should be shaped. At the same time, everyone remains free to opine under the protections of the First Amendment, the same amendment containing both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. Consistent with these constitutional principles, many LGBTQ people hold secular moral views and advocate strongly for the Equality Act from that perspective, which the Task Force Action Fund deeply respects.
I have not been surprised to see an uptick in fresh rhetorical attacks against LGBTQ people as the Equality Act comes before this esteemed Committee. Nor does it surprise me that opponents of the Equality Act take aim at some in our community most vulnerable to discrimination, particularly transgender people and including transgender young people. It is simply not right to target transgender children and youth as a tactic to prevent LGBTQ people who need them from receiving lasting federal civil rights protections. The demonizing and dehumanizing of LGBTQ people and our community’s beautiful children is not new but remains just as ugly. We experienced this during our years of struggle to secure the simple freedom to marry.
I feel particularly disturbed by the arguments of those who seek to use our shared sacred value and principle of religious freedom to prevent the enactment of provisions to protect LGBTQ people from the multitude of harms from discrimination. Religious freedom and the Equality Act are compatible, for this legislation proposes to update titles in the U.S. Code that include religious provisions which have been working for six decades. These provisions do not need to be altered, nor should they be. It would make little sense to impose differing religious provisions in our nation’s federal civil rights laws for different protected characteristics, because the reality is that several of those characteristics may exist in one person. And, as we know, that person may face discrimination for two or more characteristics combined, in which case the Equality Act could protect their whole self at home, at work and in the community. Through this legislation, a defense could not rest upon provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was never intended to be used for that purpose.
Who do we think about when we say people should have the promise of America? Who do we include in this American Dream? This is our opportunity to expand our imagination – to see the promise, a promise worthy of the prayers of generations of people who have been excluded from it.
This Committee possesses the power to act to correct the fact that our government has denied full and lasting federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people based on our sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics. This remains an issue of national urgency, as recent surveys conducted by our colleague organizations and submitted as evidence related to this Hearing demonstrate that LGBTQ people have faced, and continue to experience, significant discrimination that only the Equality Act could remedy.
Finally, passage of the Equality Act would prove beneficial to the nation. Permanent resolution in federal law making it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people would prove helpful in myriad practical ways in day-to-day life and could prove healing and unifying for our country. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Father of Latin American Liberation Theology, offers that “we must do faith with the Bible in one hand and the Newspaper in the other. Our understanding of God, our understanding of the text must speak to this moment. This moment we see LGBTQ people harmed, in pain, unfairly and unjustly treated because of who they were created to be. Read the newspapers. Our faith must speak to this moment. Our policies must speak to this moment. We need an Equality Act in this moment.”
I deeply appreciate the historic occasion of this Senate Judiciary Hearing on S. 393, the Equality Act, and the opportunity to submit this testimony today.