Lesbian Rights a Hot Issue in State Legislatures

by Barbara Hays, Lesbian Rights Director

One of the most important challenges that NOW and our allies currently face is how to address the flood of legislation on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered issues. This is sure to be a key consideration at NOW's Lesbian Rights Conference next year. There is a real advantage in coordinating information among states about which strategies are working, and this conference will be a great opportunity to network and make those vital connections with other activists.

In the meantime, almost 150 pieces of state legislation affecting lesbians and gay men in 33 states and Puerto Rico have been introduced across the country during the current legislative session. These assorted bills covered a broad range of HIV and other health issues, civil rights, domestic partnership and marriage, hate crimes, education and sodomy repeal.

In some cases, NOW members saw a silver lining in the cloud of confusion. Facing a lesbian/gay anti-discrimination bill, a pro-marriage bill, an anti-marriage bill and a bill allowing birth certificate changes for transgendered individuals, Kathy Nieberding-Ryan, Maryland NOW's lobbyist said, "We faced a challenging session, but we also had a great educational opportunity to discuss a broader range of L/G/B/T issues with legislators!"

Same-sex marriage continues to dominate the landscape. A Superior Court in Alaska has rejected the state's request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two men for the right to marry. Ruling that marriage is a fundamental right, the judge said that the state must show a compelling reason to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. As in Hawaii, anti-gay forces in the legislature have introduced a bill to prohibit same-sex marriage in their state. These measures either state a condition or definition of marriage. This scenario has been played out in at least 26 other states that have adopted same-sex marriage bans.

Many states have considered positive civil rights measures, including bills that would ban discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. One state, Kentucky, considered a bill prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in health insurance and health care. Several states defeated anti-civil rights measures: Washington state's law would have affected housing non-discrimination codes and California's would have exempted all non-profits from a law which bans employment discrimination.

Several states considered limits on domestic partner benefits, while other states will vote on favorable measures. Hate crimes bills were introduced in seven states, but one in Kentucky did not include sexual orientation. Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island and Virginia introduced sodomy repeal measures. HIV/AIDS-related measures were introduced in 16 states, with 10 considered favorable, such as needle-exchange programs and funding for HIV/AIDS education. Other bills require testing without consent and criminalization of HIV transmission.

The state legislatures are quickly becoming the arena for the future of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered activism. With national, state and local NOW working together, we can be most effective in helping push through progressive measures and defend against regressive legislation. If you are interested in helping your state NOW organization track and lobby on L/G/B/T legislation, you can look them up on our web site at http://www.now.org or call the National Action Center at 202-331-0066 to get more information. And watch for more about the NOW Lesbian Rights Conference in future issues.

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