After 35 years as a couple, Dava Weinstein and Dorothy Calvani, 66, traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2011 and got married.
When they returned to New York City, Weinstein, 69, wanted to add Calvani’s name to her apartment lease as a same-sex spouse. State law allows tenants in rent-controlled apartments to add a spouse to the lease without incurring a rent increase.
But after they both signed the lease renewal and provided a copy of their marriage certificate, their landlord said, “‘Nothing doing,’” Weinstein recalled. “And I wrote back with a copy of the regulations from New York state saying we’re protected and he still said, ‘Nothing doing.’”
So Weinstein, 69, contacted Lambda Legal, a national organization that protects the civil rights of the LGBT population – lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.
Karen Loewy, a senior attorney at Lambda, promptly sued the apartment management company.
“Within three days, we had a lease in hand with both our names on it. So it was clearly discrimination,” Weinstein said.
Loewy said the landlord’s brazen disregard of the law was surprising. He ended up paying the couple $20,000 in damages.
“If this could happen here in New York City where there are city and state prohibitions against sexual orientation discrimination in housing and where the recognition of their marriage was abundantly clear, imagine what’s happening in places where the protections are newer and less clear,” Loewy said.
That sentiment was in full display Thursday on Capitol Hill as Democrats proposed sweeping civil rights legislation designed to better protect the LGBT population. The Equality Act of 2015 would outlaw discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation not only in housing but in a number of areas.
Pippa Garner, a 73-year-old transsexual who faced housing discrimination after moving to Long Beach, Calif., last year, said the legislation is a “big step forward.”
“I think it’s very important for us to move forward with equality in every way possible, and one of the best ways to change people’s minds is to (enact laws) and make it something that’s acknowledged by the system and the Constitution,” Garner said.
Currently, New York is one of 19 states – and the District of Columbia – with a law that prohibits housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Twenty-eight other states – home to 52 percent of the nation’s LGBT population – have no such protections, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an independent think tank focused on LGBT issues.
A patchwork of local anti-discrimination housing laws offer varying degrees of protection, but they only add to the uneven regulatory landscape.
It’s unclear how widespread the problem really is. But a 2013 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that same-sex couples were less likely than opposite-sex couples to get a response when inquiring about a rental property.
The situation has prompted calls to expand the federal Fair Housing Act to protect the LGBT community against discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity in the sale, rental and financing of housing.
The 1968 law currently bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability status and familial status.
Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Jerrold Nadler of New York and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have sponsored several bills to amend the housing act, but the proposals have always died in committee.
Seizing the momentum of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriages, Democrats in Congress are hoping the Equality Act, which would also amend the Fair Housing Act, will fare better. But the chances are dim despite the passion of supporters and shifting public attitudes on the LGBT community.
There are some who say it’s not the right time. Friends, as history has shown us in America, it’s always the right time to advance freedom, justice and equality for all.
Rea Carey, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also would extend gender identity and sexual orientation protections in the areas of consumer credit, education, employment, jury service, public funding and public accommodations.
The legislation also expands protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and specifies that LGBT discrimination would not be protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill has more than 150 Democratic co-sponsors.
During a bill introduction ceremony Monday at the U.S. Capitol, Cicilline explained why supporters opted for a comprehensive bill rather than piecemeal legislation.
“Our country is in a different place today and momentum is on our side,” Cicilline said. “Partial equality is not acceptable. It’s time for a comprehensive bill that protects LGBT Americans from discrimination in all aspects of life.”
Congressional Republicans have countered with their own measure, the First Amendment Defense Act, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
The bill would block the federal government from “any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially, on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”
“The vast majority of Americans today still hold a robust view of religious liberty,” Lee said in a recent statement. “Yet across the country the right of conscience is threatened by state and local governments that coerce, intimidate and penalize individuals, associations and businesses who believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The First Amendment Defense Act is necessary to ensure that this kind of government excess never occurs at the federal level.”
But the legislation would permit government employees, businesses, commercial landlords and federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT persons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Garner arrived in California, she faced discrimination shortly after moving into a rental home. The landlord, who was out of town, let Garner move in and agreed to take care of the money and paperwork when he returned the following week.
When he and his wife showed up to meet Garner, they were surprised to see a tall, post-operative, male-to-female transsexual.
“He essentially took one look at me and said, ‘This is not going to work. You’re going to have to leave,’” Garner recalled. “I don’t dress in any sort of a flamboyant way. I have relatively long blonde hair. And I’m 6-foot-3 and I’m an athlete. So there’s a mix of masculinity and femininity in the way I look.”
A freelance artist and Vietnam War veteran who suffers from leukemia, Garner decided it wasn’t worth the stress to file a discrimination complaint or lawsuit even though housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal in California.
Instead, Garner packed her things and moved to an apartment in another area of the city. But the experience left a mark.
“They never came out and said, ‘It’s because you’re transgender.’ They knew enough to not do that,” Garner said. “But it was obvious that there was no other reason that they would want me to leave. . . . It was blatant. I could see it in their eyes. This hatred and disgust, you know, like, ‘We don’t want you here.’ ”
CORRECTION: An earlier version misspelled Pippa Garner’s name in photo captions.