Presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) commemorated Pride Month on Wednesday by putting out a comprehensive LGBTQ rights plan.
The plan details many steps O’Rourke would take as president. That includes executive actions he could enact on his own, including the repeal of President Donald Trump’s ban on openly serving transgender troops in the military and religious exemption expansions that could be used to justify anti-LGBTQ discrimination. O’Rourke also calls for the passage of legislation, like the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination and criminal justice reforms to address LGBTQ-specific concerns. And he calls for international action, including reforming the asylum process to help LGBTQ people find a safer place to live.
Other candidates, from poll leader and former Vice President Joe Biden to the less known Andrew Yang, have vowed action on LGBTQ rights. But O’Rourke’s proposal offers one of the most detailed looks so far at how a Democratic president could act in this area.
Underlying Democrats’ calls for action on LGBTQ rights is one issue: Despite all the gains in the past several years, LGBTQ people still aren’t protected under federal law and most state laws in the same way people are protected from discrimination based on race, sex, religious views, and nationality.
So in most states someone can be fired from a job, evicted from a home, or kicked out of a business just because an employer, landlord, or business owner doesn’t approve of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Much of O’Rourke’s plan targets these gaps. The Equality Act and several of his executive actions, for instance, would legally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, the workplace, public accommodations, and other settings.
Federal and state laws already ban discrimination based on race, religion, nationality, and sex in the workplace, schools, and other places. This is what the Civil Rights Act and other federal and state civil rights laws that followed were about. O’Rourke’s proposals would just expand these protections to LGBTQ people. (Though some advocates argue LGBTQ people should already be protected by existing bans on sex discrimination, that’s a legal debate that the US Supreme Court will ultimately decide.)
Where O’Rourke goes further than typical Democratic proposals is he also targets problems LGBTQ people face in other areas.
For example, some parts of O’Rourke’s proposal would try to make it easier for LGBTQ people fleeing discrimination in other countries to seek refuge and asylum in the US. As I’ve written before, this was an issue even under President Barack Obama’s administration — as LGBTQ immigrants were deported back to countries where they faced the threat of deadly violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Similarly, O’Rourke promises to enact criminal justice reforms to help LGBTQ people, including implementing anti-profiling policies for police and reforming the Prison Rape Elimination Act. LGBTQ people, especially transgender women, face particularly horrifying conditions in jails and prisons. One inmate I spoke to, Samantha Hill, said she was sexually assaulted at least eight times in five federal prisons, as she was placed time and time again in prison cells with men despite identifying and visibly presenting as a woman.
Whether or not O’Rourke and other Democrats could address all of these issues may ultimately come down to factors outside of their control. Congress might not take up the Equality Act, especially if Democrats don’t take the Senate. Immigration officials and courts could continue blocking LGBTQ refugees, much like they did under the Obama administration. Prison staff could fail to properly implement new protections for trans inmates — just as they’ve struggled to fully implement and enforce the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
But on Pride Month, at least, O’Rourke is signaling that these issues would be a major priority for his administration.