Content warning: This article references suicide due to extreme physical pain.
For Americans like Staci Jenkins, searching for medical care can mean experiencing discrimination that could threaten her life. In December 2015, Jenkins had an appointment to see a neurologist at a clinic in Lakeville, Michigan. She was experiencing head pain so severe that she could not move her neck. Jenkins has lupus, so she was on a combination of several strong pain medications and muscle relaxers, including oxycontin.
When the doctor arrived for the exam, she asked who was accompanying Jenkins at the visit. When Jenkins responded that her wife was with her, the doctor physically recoiled, refused to examine Jenkins and denied her medication, accusing her of being there to seek drugs. After leaving the clinic without being treated, Jenkins’ wife went back inside and asked the nurse if there was another doctor that could see Jenkins. The doctor reappeared, answering that no one could see Jenkins and told her wife to leave.
“I was diagnosed with occipital and trigeminal neuralgia, also known as 'suicide disease' because the pain gets so bad people often kill themselves,” Jenkins said. “The only thing that kept me from killing myself was wanting to find out what was going on with my stiff neck, head and face and telling every other doctor I saw what this other doctor did.”
Jenkins’ story is not unique. The reality of facing discrimination is real for millions of LGBTQ+ people in health care, housing, financial services and so many more areas of life. We need to guarantee that no one else is subject to the same treatment no matter what state they live in. We need to pass the Equality Act.
There are only 21 states in the United States that have laws to fully protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination in key aspects of life. This means that millions of LGBTQ+ people living in the other 29 states are at risk of discrimination.
The reality is not everyone in the country has the rights they deserve. But it can be hard for some people to see this.
That’s why the Human Rights Campaign unveiled the Reality Flag in early 2022, in partnership with WPP, a global creative communications agency, to serve as a powerful visualization of the inconsistent patchwork of non-discrimination laws in the United States. The flag is inspired by the U.S. flag but has only 21 stars instead of the usual 50. There are 29 stars missing, because in 29 states in this country, LGBTQ+ people are missing basic freedoms that are afforded to other people.
The Reality Flag was unveiled in mid-February as part of a multifaceted campaign that included a rendering of the flag on the side of HRC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House. Variations of the same flag appear in digital and print advertisements across the country to connect viewers to the reality flag website, where they can learn the personal stories of Americans who continue to face discrimination. And we’ve sent flags to a number of influential members of the LGBTQ+ community for them to join the conversation online about the state of missing freedoms in the U.S. and the reality of discrimination facing the LGBTQ+ community.
The individual stories of the Reality Flag highlight the experiences of countless people in the LGBTQ+ community, all of whom need the Equality Act to offer them guaranteed protection under the law.
Jenkins’ story — and the stories of many other LGBTQ+ people who have faced discrimination — would have been different if the Equality Act was law. David Fuller is a father raising his children and working as a police officer in Alabama. For Americans like Fuller and his daughter, Jess, discrimination against trans youth is a daily reality. Last year, Fuller shared his story with a state legislative committee that was considering a bill to criminalize medical care for trans kids. As a city of Gadsen police officer, this law would have Fuller “put handcuffs on the people who are heroes in my life and arrest the people that saved my daughter,” he said in his remarks to the committee. Fuller knows firsthand what protection from discrimination could mean for their family.
Like Jenkins, Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker knows that experiencing discrimination while searching for health care is a life-or-death situation. Asapansa-Johnson Walker is a Black transgender woman living in New York and a lung cancer survivor. When the Trump administration tried to alter United States Department of Health and Human Services’ regulations and illegally strip away critical nondiscrimination protections under the Affordable Care Act, it could have meant a loss of health care nondiscrimination protections for Asapansa-Johnson Walker and threatened her life.
Asapansa-Johnson Walker joined an HRC lawsuit in June 2020 and in August, Federal District Court Judge Frederic Block issued a preliminary injunction against the administration's rule change.
All of these stories could have different endings. The flag can be complete if we are willing to work together as a community to get the Equality Act passed in the Senate and send to President Biden’s desk.
Current civil rights laws protect people on the basis of race, color, national origin, and, in most cases, sex, disability, and religion. But the law does not include guaranteed protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That leaves millions of people vulnerable and nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ Americans report having experienced discrimination at least once in their lives.
The Equality Act would provide consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people. These protections would ensure protections in housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service. It would also codify the positive outcome of the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County prohibiting employment discrimination.
Once it’s passed and signed, the Equality Act would amend existing civil rights law — including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Jury Selection and Services Act, and several laws regarding employment with the federal government — to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics. The legislation also amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination in public spaces and services and federally funded programs on the basis of sex.
The Equality Act would also add non-discrimination protections to public spaces and services covered in current law to include retail stores, services such as banks and legal services, and transportation services. This would mean LGBTQ+ people, people of color, women, and religious minorities would be protected against discrimination when picking up groceries, shopping for clothes, taking a taxi or rideshare and more.
There is overwhelming support for the Equality Act across the country. More than 82% of Americans support the protection this bill offers and it has been endorsed by more than 630 organizations, including civil rights, education, health care and faith-based organizations. And business leaders know the bill is good for business too. More than 500 businesses have joined the Business Coalition for the Equality Act.
Our community has made significant progress in the fight for equality; however, Americans continue to experience discrimination across the country. The Reality Flag highlights the current patchwork nature of state non-discrimination laws and the lack of permanent, comprehensive federal non-discrimination laws. This inconsistency leaves millions of people subject to uncertainty and potential discrimination that impacts their safety, their families and their day-to-day lives based on where they live.
The fight for our rights continues. While we’re closer than we’ve ever been before in achieving this milestone in our movement, we still have a lot of work to do. The Equality Act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. David Cicilline and passed with bipartisan support with a vote of 224-206 in February 2021.
Since then, HRC and our community of supporters have worked to move the bill forward in the Senate. We’ve made thousands of calls and sent thousands of emails and letters to senators asking them to support the legislation and vote for it to move to the president’s desk.