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For many Americans, it’s all too easy to assume that the fight for LGBTQ rights has been won. After all, same-sex couples have enjoyed the same right to marriage as their straight neighbors since 2015; the Supreme Court ruled last year that a person’s sexuality alone is not a justifiable reason for them to lose their job. Support for same-sex relationships is at a record high, while major corporations for the past month have been bathing consumers in rainbow-hued marketing and affirmations amid Pride celebrations. In Washington, D.C., more LGBTQ lawmakers than ever before are in power at the Capitol—and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay member of a presidential Cabinet.
But Americans would be better served by benching gestures of performative allyship and recognizing just how many ways this country still discriminates—in perfectly legal ways—against the LGBTQ community. From financial contracts to mental-health services, housing to parenthood, institutions find ways large and small to stack the deck against LGBTQ people. In just one example, a 2018 study found that LGBTQ students left college with about $16,000 more student debt than their straight classmates, owing to factors like decreased family support, their requiring more time to finish a degree and external costs like counseling.
At the federal level, some steps are being considered to provide LGBTQ people with more support. The Equality Act, the most sweeping rewrite of civil rights laws since the 1960s, would offer protections for fair access to housing, education and even jury service without regard to sexuality or gender. But the legislation is stuck in the Senate.
Meanwhile, a bevy of efforts are under way to roll back existing protections; dozens of bills are winding their way through state capitols to make it more difficult— if not impossible—for transgender students to play school sports or use restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. Self-styled “religious liberty” laws that permit discrimination in the name of faith are chugging along with few checks in state legislatures that are dominated by Republicans. And in June, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Philadelphia was on the wrong side of the law when it said that to receive city funding, a Catholic social-service agency had to provide services to same-sex couples looking to adopt.
Against this backdrop, TIME spoke with two co-chairs of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, Representatives Sharice Davids of Kansas and Mondaire Jones of New York, as part of its 2021 virtual Pride Summit highlighting perspectives on identity, creativity and equality. Both Democrats, they’ve made history: Davids in 2018 as the first openly LGBTQ Native American elected to Congress and Jones as one of two gay Black men elected to Congress in the 2020 elections.
“It’s important that we are living authentically and visibly, giving inspiration to kids like [I was] when I was growing up wondering if there was a place for me in a world filled with so much injustice,” Jones tells TIME. “And of course you have to shoulder some of the important work that the LGBTQ movement has still yet to accomplish.”
They may be firsts, but they’re not ones to puff up their chests just because they will have places in future history books. “A lot of people know what it’s like to be the only person like them in the room,” Davids says. And even with the strides being made to ensure Congress is more representative of America’s changing demographics, there’s still plenty more work to do. Of the 535 voting members of Congress, just 11 identify publicly as LGBTQ.
This appears in the July 05, 2021 issue of TIME.
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