For the Civil Rights Act to do its job, Congress must pass the Equality Act
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This year ushered in the most diverse set of Congressional representatives ever. We’ve celebrated historic firsts, like the first Queer woman of color, Rep. Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsLawmakers urge young women to run for office at DC conference Ex-congressman launching PAC to defend Dem seats in 2020 Freshman Democrats call on McConnell to hold vote on election reform bill MORE (D-Kan.), who is also one of the first two indigenous women in Congress. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) became the first openly bisexual member of the Senate. Rep. Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonLawmakers battle over HUD protections for homeless transgender people Virginia lawmakers respond to shooting: 'My heart breaks for ... our entire commonwealth' Second Republican blocks disaster aid bill's passage in House MORE (D-Va.) proudly displays a Transgender pride flag outside her office in support of the Trans community. With representation comes the promise of a voice, the promise of change.

Fifty-five years ago, during the inception of the Civil Rights Movement, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Same-Gender-Loving (SGL), and Gender-non-conforming activists were forced into the background where their voices were silenced and demands for legislative protections, for those of us most neglected and ignored as a result of our marginalized identities, were denied. Despite their efforts, gay Civil Rights leaders and organizers like Bayard Rustin were limited in their capacity fight for legislation that protects black LGBTQ/SGL people.

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The 116th Congress can fix this. The Equality Act, which has been introduced many times, would update the language in the Civil Rights Act and other laws to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. For the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to truly protect all black people from discrimination, it must be updated.

In our federal report card, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) found that all three branches of government have failed to secure fundamental legislative protections for black LGBTQ/SGL people. Instead, they have actively pursued destructive policies against us. From the administration’s dismissal of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, it is obvious that the nation needs clear and consistent federal protections that ensure liberty and justice for all.

The exclusion of LGBTQ/SGL Americans from federal protections continues to disproportionately impact black people. This lack of protection for our communities is a matter of human dignity.  In some instances it’s a matter of survival. Too often, simply as a result of who we are and how we identify, we risk being denied public services and access to places like hospitals, service stations and restaurants. Without non-discrimination protections we also risk being denied access to housing and shelter, education and employment opportunities-- consequently the skills, experiences, and relationships needed to unlock the pathway to the American dream.

Right now in Anchorage, a homeless shelter is fighting in court for the right to reject homeless transgender women. The shelter is challenging local ordinances that prevent discrimination based on gender identity. Many cities do not even have these protections. This is especially true in the American South, where the majority of Black Americans live today and continue to experience new levels voter suppression and racial intimidation. In states like Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina local protections are not feasible for people who need legal protections today against gerrymandering, voter roll purging, exact-signature-match requirements, and inaccessible polling locations and restricted hours.

To be clear, there are Congress members who would rather create new legislation instead of amending current legislation with the Equality Act. Our experience tells us, however, that separate-but-equal legislation would need to be re-litigated through the courts—potentially putting many of the people it hopes to protect through the judicial ringer effectively abandoning millions more who do not have the resources to pursue a court case. By amending legislation that already has a strong precedence, updated protections could be grandfathered into decades of established laws and policies. Businesses, schools, service providers and individuals would have a pre-established framework to navigate legal difficulties.

As we enter into February, the month designated to celebrate Civil Rights leaders and icons, like Marsha P. Johnson and Janet Mock, let’s remember that while the traditional Civil Rights movement brought unprecedented protections for some black people, along with women, people of color, and many others, the fight is not over.

Legislation is critical to ensuring legal protections too often denied those with intersectional socially constructed identities. If we want all black people to have the opportunity to get free -- that is to be happy, healthy, and whole we must ensure there are federal civil rights protections that include LGBTQ/SGL black people.

Our newly elected Congress has a chance to demonstrate their commitment to the diversity that has always made America great.  It is our responsibility to support them in ensuring the Equality Act remains a priority.

David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a policy-engaged civil rights organization fighting for Black LGBTQ and Same-Gender-Loving People.