An opportunity for a bipartisan victory on LGBTQ nondiscrimination

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Freedom and opportunity for all are core principles that have guided me in public service and in my own life. Former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell was an inspirational voice advocating for a nation of equal opportunity — recognizing that equal opportunity doesn’t result in equal outcomes. During our mutual time in government, this was classic Republican economic philosophy. So, what does freedom and opportunity for all actually look like?

For starters, it means having access to a quality education leading to real skills for real work with real wages. People are allowed to follow their own professional dreams. If they work hard, they can make a decent living. 

Here’s the surprise! For a segment of the American population, quality education and real skills does not result in good jobs and decent income. For some, there is no job available at all — even in today’s very tight labor market. In fact, millions of LGBTQ Americans are vulnerable to discrimination just because of who they are with no regard for their skills or work history. A majority of states lack explicit laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. For nearly half a century, bills to extend federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people have advanced with bipartisan support in Congress — but never in the same chamber during the same session.

Now Congress has an opportunity to enshrine freedom and opportunity for all LGBTQ people into law in the weeks ahead, and I urge my former colleagues not to let this moment escape.

This is a chance for Congress to take action on a truly bipartisan issue that enjoys overwhelming support nationwide. According to recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, eight in 10 Americans support nondiscrimination protections, including 65 percent of Republicans. So do majorities in every single state across the nation. More than 500 businesses, spanning all 50 states and collectively employing more than 15 million people, support federal nondiscrimination protections.

I had the distinct honor of serving in Congress for 16 years, and I can’t think of many other issues that enjoy such deep support. Believe it or not, a Republican, Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus elected in 1978 enacted such a law in Wisconsin. People in my home state support this concept because it doesn’t guarantee anyone a permanent job regardless of their conduct and performance. Rather, it guarantees that no one will lose a job simply because of their sexual orientation.

Luckily, we’re poised for action — the House passed the Equality Act with bipartisan support one year ago, and the president has vowed to sign nondiscrimination protections into law. Now, the Senate needs to act.

Stop and think for a moment about how devastating it could be to lose your job — not for any reason related to your performance. To be denied housing or evicted from your home, even though you’re keeping up with your rent and are a model tenant. The disruption to your life would be far-reaching. These are just some of the consequences LGBTQ people and their families face when they encounter discrimination in their lives.

But we have a real shot to address this by getting nondiscrimination protections over the finish line in Congress. My Republican colleagues ought to be flocking to this issue for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s just the right thing to do — which is probably why support among all Americans is sky-high. Second, in today’s workforce we need every skilled worker we can find. Third, every business — large or small — needs to focus on success, rather than be distracted and torn apart when a good colleague loses their job for reasons that have nothing to do with their work. Fourth, today’s businesses reach across state lines all the time. Interstate commerce justifies a common set of labor laws.

Ensuring freedom and opportunity for all is a fundamentally conservative principle. What the Equality Act seeks to do is ensure that all Americans are free to work hard, provide for themselves and their families and succeed in their communities.

A growing number of my fellow Republicans are speaking out and standing with the supermajority of conservatives who support nondiscrimination protections. This reflects what the future of our party should be: An inclusive, welcoming party that lives our values by standing up for what is right and supporting the conditions that allow all Americans — including LGBTQ Americans — to succeed.

Congress has a real chance to take popular, bipartisan action right now and pass LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections into law. I hope my conservative colleagues on Capitol Hill recognize the imperative and the opportunity to be on the right side of history in this moment.

Steve Gunderson, a former Republican congressman, represented Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District from 1981 to 1997.

Tags bipartisan civil rights Colin Powell Democrats gay rights LGBTQ LGBTQ rights Republicans

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