Significant progress made for equality but much work remains

By U.S. Representative Gary Peters, D-MI 9

Our Constitution guarantees equal protection under law, and as a Member of Congress, I firmly believe it is my duty to defend the rights of all Americans. In the past two years, I have had the honor to work with my colleagues to enact legislation extending hate crimes protections to LGBT Americans and repeal the misguided "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law which prevented LGBT soldiers from serving openly in our military. President Obama's administration has expanded benefits for the partners of foreign service officers and implemented new federal regulations allowing hospital patients to decide who has visitation rights and who can make medical decisions on their behalf, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or family makeup.

The repeal of DADT was of deep, personal significance to me. As a former Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve, I served with many brave, patriotic and dedicated men and women. I was never concerned about their sexual orientation, just their ability to serve the United States honorably.

We must allow our military to recruit and retain any qualified, patriotic, and courageous American who wants to serve our nation. The military has already started implementing repeal, with programs including formal classes, discussion groups and extensive training to make sure each individual understands the new rules. The process should be complete by August.

Despite these significant advancements, many of us are frustrated that more was not accomplished, and so much work remains in the fight for equality. In addition to completing the implementation of DADT repeal, two of my top priorities for advancing LBGT equality are repealing the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act and combating bullying of LGBT students.

I am encouraged that President Obama and Attorney General Holder have formally recognized that DOMA is unconstitutional and it will not be defended in court by the Department of Justice. This is an important step forward, but while the Administration will stop defending DOMA, the federal government will continue enforcement by denying benefits to the spouses of federal employees with valid same-sex marriages.

DOMA is one of the few laws remaining in the United States today that exists to restrict and deny basic rights to American citizens - and it is time for us to repeal this law once and for all. This is why I am an original cosponsor of the recently introduced Respect for Marriage Act. This bill repeals DOMA in its entirety and, for purposes of federal law, requires respect for marriages valid under the law of the state where they were performed.

Repealing DOMA and achieving true marriage equality will be an uphill battle. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives will oppose legislative repeal, and they are appointing a legal team to defend DOMA in court in place of the Department of Justice. This will waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal bills at a time when Congress should be focused on creating jobs and putting our country on a sustainable fiscal path.

I believe there are opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on equality, such as addressing school bullying of LGBT students. All students deserve to feel safe at school. Unfortunately, students who are, or are perceived to be LGBT are subjected to higher rates of discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence. Surveys indicate as many as nine out of every ten LGBT students have been bullied. This is harmful to both students and our educational system.

I strongly support the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which establishes a comprehensive federal prohibition of discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and provides victims with effective remedies modeled after Title IX. This legislation would also protect the friends and allies of LGBT students, who are often targeted for bullying and harassment themselves. Hate has no place in our schools. LGBT students should be able to attend school and get a quality education while being free from fear of harassment and intimidation.

Congress, the LGBT community, and LGBT allies cannot rest in the wake of our recent advancements in equality. We must continue working to enact SNDA, repeal DOMA, and achieve true equality. Throughout our history, Americans have come together to stand up for our own rights and those of our friends and neighbors. Much like those efforts, the work ahead of us will be difficult - but it is a necessary fight and it is a fight I know we will win.

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