Science

Politicians Don’t Get to Use ‘Science’ to Oppose the Equality Act

Last month the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the Equality Act, a bill that would extend civil rights protection to LGBTQ people throughout the U.S. It is supported by 70 percent of Americans and recently passed the House of Representatives.

But some politicians are hell-bent on making sure it doesn’t pass. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently noted he will use the filibuster to make sure federal protections aren’t extended to LGBTQ people. “I would talk until I fell over,” he said.

As a gay man, a physician and a mental health researcher, my heart broke listening to the hearing. When Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said, in front of a transgender teenager, that “men are men, and women are women”—a common phrase used to imply transgender people are actually mentally ill or confused—my eyes welled with tears. Republican opposition to this bill is cruel. But beyond that, it’s also antiscience.

GOP senators repeatedly cited “science” as a reason to oppose civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans. Similar vague statements were made during debates between House members. Yet the politicians opposing the Equality Act never cited any research literature to back their assertions. I can tell you that science firmly disagrees with their position. As Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David pointed out during the Senate hearing, “we have to make sure our policies are driven by facts.”

The scientific literature shows that bills protecting LGBTQ rights promote health and well-being. A recent landmark study by researchers at Harvard Medical School showed that transgender antidiscrimination laws result in a decrease in suicidality. In states that implemented these antidiscrimination policies, odds of transgender people struggling with suicidality dropped by 39 percent.

A similar study in 2017 showed that when states implemented same-sex marriage protections, they saw a 14 percent reduction in suicide attempts among adolescents in sexual minority groups. These adolescents, of course, were not likely to be getting married at the time. Rather, the study suggested these protections for LGBTQ people have a broad societal impact that improves our social climates and subsequently mental health.

Currently, LGBTQ people rely on a patchwork of state-level civil rights protections. Because federal protections are lacking, it is still legal to refuse services to us in many states. To give one extreme example, Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson recently signed the ironically named Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, which allows doctors, pharmacists, and insurers to refuse to treat LGBTQ people based on personal or corporate “moral” grounds.

We have seen this denial of services to LGBTQ individuals using “moral” justifications in areas outside of health care as well. Many will remember the recent Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Though the Supreme Court largely sidestepped the question of LGBTQ civil rights versus “moral” objections in its majority decision in the case, the science is relatively clear. A rigorous study published in 2018 showed that laws permitting the refusal of services to same-sex couples substantially increase mental health problems.

Some politicians have argued that because the Equality Act would allow transgender women to use public facilities that match their gender identity, it would result in more sexual assaults. Research shows this is not true. A 2019 study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that trans-inclusive public-accommodation laws did not result in an increase in sexual assaults in restrooms or locker rooms among the general population. Another study in the journal Pediatrics found that these trans-inclusive policies are actually linked to lower rates of sexual assault victimization among transgender youth. Politicians have similarly tried to create a moral panic over transgender girls competing in girls’ sports leagues, another concern that has been shown not to be a real issue. As I recently explained in Scientific American, my own state of California has protected the rights of transgender people to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity since 2013, and there have been no problems.

Arguably the saddest themes in the discussions around the Equality Act are those that invalidate the experiences of transgender youth. It appears that the GOP has come to understand that attacking sexual minority people is no longer going to win them votes. In contrast, it seems they think attacking transgender people and invalidating their gender identity is a more winning strategy. Research consistently shows that the greatest predictor of suicidality among transgender kids is this kind of rejection of their gender identity. This population has suicide attempt rates as high as 40 percent, and it is unacceptable for politicians to be contributing to this public mental health crisis.

If GOP Senators are going to continue opposing the Equality Act, it is time they admit that their opposition isn’t based on science. It’s based on the regressive view, not shared by the majority of Americans, that LGBTQ people are threatening and don’t deserve equal protection under the law. With scientific evidence overwhelmingly disagreeing with their position, they don’t get to use “science” as their rationale for discrimination.

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