Shawn Lang, arrested twice 30 years ago at the State Capitol while protesting the lack of gay rights in Connecticut, took a seat Tuesday in a meeting room at a minor-league ballpark in Hartford where the LGBTQ community is now another market to be tapped and the promotional schedule last season included “Pride Night.”
Lang was invited by Attorney General William Tong to take stock of the civil rights afforded the LGBTQ community in Connecticut on a day when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a federal prohibition against discrimination based on sex also covers bias against gay and transgender people.
A made-for-media event organized by the office of a press-savvy attorney general, the roundtable talk offered a measure of how far Connecticut has come on gay rights, how the movement has shifted to a focus on transgender youth — and the extent to which civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation still are unresolved in most of America.
Twenty-eight years after Connecticut barred discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation, there are 29 states where it is legal to fire someone because they are gay or transgender.
The three cases now before the Supreme Court arise from two lawsuits filed by gay men who say they were fired because of their sexual orientation and a third by a woman who says she was fired after announcing she was transgender. They are the first gay rights cases to be heard since the retirement last year of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the author of the court’s previous decisions protecting the gay community.
Despite concerns about how the Supreme Court will rule, Connecticut is now ranked as one of the states with the strongest civil-rights protections for the LGBTQ community. The state banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations in 1991. Gender identity was added to the law in 2011.
“The laws in Connecticut here protect us,” Tong said.
Connecticut’s law is cited in an amici brief filed in July by Tong and 21 other state attorneys general in support of the plaintiffs.
“It is the amici States’ experience that a comprehensive and coordinated nondiscrimination system achieves broader and more consistent results than would a patchwork approach resulting from state experimentation,” they wrote.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender people. The Trump administration says it does not.
Passage of the Connecticut employment law in 1991 came after 18 years of pushing by a gay community that still was largely invisible. In 1989, when a similar measure failed, a Republican from eastern Connecticut told the House, “I rise in strong opposition to this bill, and it is not because I am discriminating against anybody. I honestly don’t know a gay or a homosexual person.”
Sitting in the chamber that day were two gay colleagues, Reps. Joseph S. Grabarz Jr. of Bridgeport and Michael P. Lawlor of East Haven. Neither had yet to publicly disclose their sexual orientation. Weeks before the opening of the 1991 session, Grabarz would come out as the first openly gay lawmaker in Connecticut.
Lang, who now works for AIDS-CT, a coalition of groups providing services and support for anyone impacted by HIV/AIDS, was one of several protesters who disrupted a House session, furious at the defeat during a most vulnerable time for the gay community.
“People were dying of AIDs,” Lang said.
The House voted 81 to 65 for the law in 1991. One of 17 Republicans in support was M. Jodi Rell, the future governor who would sign a same-sex civil unions bill into law. The Senate followed suit, voting 21 to 14, with support from George Jepsen, whom Tong recently succeeded as attorney general.
The law legalizing same-sex civil unions was passed in 2005, setting the stage for a court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2008. The state also has passed laws giving transgender people the right to change their birth certificates and banning conversion therapy for teens and the use of the so-called “gay panic defense” in criminal cases.
Tong’s roundtable discussion Tuesday was held in the community room of Dunkin’ Donuts Park in downtown Hartford, where the president of the home-team Yard Goats, Tim Restall, welcomed them. On Pride Night in June, the Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus sang the national anthem and fans were given diversity baseball caps.
Participants spoke wryly of how things had changed.
Tong was elected to the House in 2006. One of the first LGBT issues he confronted was protections for transgender people.
“A lot of us didn’t even have the vocabulary then,” Tong said.
Andrew J. McDonald, then a state senator and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, told Tong after a public hearing that he seemed to be struggling. McDonald, who soon would become the state’s first openly gay justice of the state Supreme Court, told him he simplified the issue with a single question: “Am I in the business of discriminating against people?”
Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel, one of two openly gay people now serving in the House, said neither the Trump administration nor the court get to rule on the humanity of the LGBTQ community.
“What they are ruling on today is their’s,” he said.
Tong asked the participants about the challenges still faced by gay and transgender people in Connecticut.
Robin McHaelen, the executive director of True Colors, a non-profit that advocates for LGBTQ youth, said schools and agencies like the Department of Children and Families must do a better job in gathering data about gay and transgender children, who are disproportionately represented among the homeless and those in juvenile detention.
McHaeln said the average age of gay children coming out is 11, but schools tend to ignore issues of sexual identification.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” she said. “Schools don’t want to ask.”