The Equality Act: A time for Christian courage

As the Senate considers The Equality Act, there is no shortage of conservative politicians, theologians and commentators asserting all hell will break loose if LGBTQ people — particularly trans people — are granted the same rights and protections as other Americans.

The latest in this round of indefensible fearmongering comes from Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Ethics and Public Policy Center. In an April 6 address during a fundraiser for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix’s John Paul II Resource Center for Theology of the Body and Culture, Anderson, as reported by Catholic News Service on April 8, alleges passage of The Equality Act “would significantly impact women’s privacy and safety, genuine equality, medical practices and religious liberty.”

The Equality Act, first introduced in 1974, would broaden the protections of existing civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act, to ensure equality for LGBTQ Americans in the workforce, housing, education, banking, representation on juries and other areas of American civil life. 

Today roughly 75% of Americans support equality for LGBTQ people, according to a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). To overcome that overwhelming support, Anderson, and those like him, attempt to drive a wedge of fear and hatred between the vast majority of Americans and their LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

Anderson quickly jumps to complementarianism — today the most socially acceptable way to justify misogyny and systemic inequality. In his April 6 address, Anderson proclaimed The Equality Act would not provide true equality, and “actual equality requires us to treat men and women equally, but differently.” The close relationship between “equal but different” and “separate but equal” is not coincidental, and is more than semantic. 

In his attempts to justify — in fact, demand — inequality within a Christian context, Anderson relies on the same vein of scriptural perversion once used to support slavery and segregation. While American public opinion now resoundingly condemns slavery and segregation, conservative theologians and preachers still use the same twisting and wrangling of Christ’s teaching to oppress women, migrants and LGBTQ people.

In his ill-founded and poorly constructed argument against equality, Anderson sets his sights squarely on trans people, focusing on them to a far greater extent than other members of the LGBTQ community. His attacks play on prevalent and unfounded fears of trans people running amok in bathrooms and locker rooms, asserting The Equality Act would “force access to women’s only locker rooms, restrooms and shelters to anybody who identifies as a woman, regardless of biological difference.”

Anderson focuses on trans people precisely because they are more vulnerable, enjoy less public support and suffer greater systemic inequality, discrimination and violence than other LGBTQ people. As recently as 2014, only one-quarter of Americans supported equal rights for trans people, and in 2019 still one-third did not support their equality, according to data provided by Human Rights Campaign (HRC). 

Trans people lag behind social acceptance and support for other LGBTQ people because of “considerable stigma due to more than a  century of being characterized as mentally ill, socially deviant and sexually predatory,” according to HRC. Despite these damaging and dangerous stereotypes being resoundingly debunked, Anderson and his ilk still rely on the fears they stoke to support and sustain inequality and oppression of all LGBTQ people.

Anderson dismisses discrimination in health care against trans people as a “nonexistent hypothetical.” His callous statement begs the question: Did he forgo the strenuous research of a single Google search, or did he willfully ignore and disingenuously dismiss clear evidence of what he says does not exist? The latter seems far more likely. A 2017 study conducted by an independent analysis firm on commission for the Center for American Progress found 29% of trans adults in the United States “have been refused health care by a doctor or provider because of their gender identity.” 

Any reasonable and compassionate person understands the correlation between systemic oppression and vilification, and the deadly outcomes suffered by LGBTQ people, especially so among trans people. According to HRC, trans people experience violence at rates far greater than the average person: 54% of trans people have experienced some form of intimate partner violence, 47% have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime and nearly one in ten were physically assaulted between 2014 and 2015. Suicide rates also disproportionately affect LGBTQ youth, and are especially deadly for the trans community. Among LGBTQ youth as a whole, suicide rates are five times that of heterosexual peers, according to the CDC. 

And for those whose compassion and common sense does not reveal the correlation between societal rejection and oppression, and negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth — especially trans youth — a 2009 Family Acceptance Project report showed LGBTQ youth from highly rejecting families are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide “as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.” Another 2009 report published in the journal Pediatrics found family rejection is “a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults.” 

Ignoring the pain, suffering and death inflicted on LGBTQ youth — and thus abandoning any credible claim to be pro-life — Anderson then turns to a 2011 Swedish study of, among other outcomes, the suicide rates of trans people after sex reassignment surgery. “Long-term Follow-up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassigment Surgery,” by Cecilia Dhejne et al, is often cited by those who oppose LGBTQ equality, and specifically trans equality. These arguments, including Anderson’s, dig no deeper into the study than the executive summary, take the entire work out of context, and ignore the authors’ own findings of the study’s efficacy and scope  — all in an attempt to fight LGBTQ equality by blaming trans people for the factors leading to their disproportionately high rate of suicide.

Anderson, and others who cite this study, ignore the authors’ finding that limitations on the study of outcomes for trans people “preclude solid and generalisable conclusions,” and another study cited by the Swedish authors that found the body of study on mortality after sex reassigment surgery “is of very low quality due to the serious methodological limitations of included studies.” Yet, the transphobic crowd — represented largely by conservative Christians — continue to lean heavily on this one Swedish study to claim equality is dangerous for trans people.

In case there was room remaining for doubt about the Swedish study, the work’s principal author, Dhejne, told Houston-based Trans Advocate in a 2017 interview the negative outcomes for trans people had more to do with social rejection than with sex reassignment. Dhejne states, in fact, that reassignment surgery works “to bring a trans person’s body more in line with their gender identity, resulting in the measurable diminishment of their gender dysphoria.” 

“However,” Dhejne continued, “trans people as a group also experience significant social oppression in the form of bullying, abuse, rape and hate crimes. Medical transition alone won’t resolve the effects of crushing social oppression: social anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress. What we’ve found is that treatment models which ignore the effect of cultural oppression and outright hate aren’t enough. We need to understand that our treatment models must be responsive to not only gender dysphoria, but the effects of anti-trans hate as well. That’s what improved care means.”

Hate. Crushing social oppression. Denial of basic rights and services. This is what drives the depression, anxiety and PTSD that lead to disproportionately high rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth. Yet, Anderson, and other willfully negligent Christian apologists and preachers, continue to risk the lives of LGBTQ youth, and to inflict pain and long-term negative outcomes on their sisters and brothers within the realm of God’s children.

There are many shortcomings in Anderson’s argument, and in the conservative attempts to retain the old barriers against equality and justice. But there is no greater fault in his message, or his misled peers’ efforts, than this: He ignores the core teachings of Jesus Christ to come down solidly on the side of injustice and hate. 

Anderson follows in a long line of closed-minded and hard-hearted Pharisees who rely on isolated verses of scripture, taken wildly out of context, all balanced precariously against the abundance of scriptural passages demanding justice, and the immovable and eternal weight of Christ’s teachings on compassion and love. Anderson, and those like him, can only sustain their argument by trying to blind Christians to Christ’s clearest command: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

As was stated in a February statement by the US Old Catholic Church on The Equality Act, “We cannot, in good faith, claim to follow Jesus Christ, while allowing inequality and injustice to continue for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, for to do so — even passively — would be to defile Christ’s command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But, there is one statement from Anderson’s address with which I wholeheartedly agree: “We have to have the courage to speak out on this.” 

Yes, Mr. Anderson, we, as the Body of Christ, must have the courage to speak out at this time. We must have the courage the Church lacked in the face of slavery, of segregation and of the current systemic inequality of women, people of color and LGBTQ people. We must have the courage to call out and refute the fearmongering voice of hate and ignorance. We must have the courage to speak out, to walk with, serve and fight for Christ, who teaches us above all to love, and to love, as St. John tells us, in such a way that “expels all fear.”

“We love because he first loved us,” John tells us. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Amen.

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