What We Mean When We Talk About Change

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LGBT people and people living with HIV.
On the Case, a monthly column from Lambda Legal

By Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart

One of my favorite headlines coming out of this primary season was on a Seattle Times editorial: "'Change' Leads Early in the Race." And it's true that change is on the tip of everyone's tongue — from voters to candidates of all political stripes, each trying to prove that he or she is the one who will offer a new vision for America, the one who will bring about real change.

But what exactly does change mean? That often depends on who is speaking the word, but one fact is undeniable: The next chief executive will have the opportunity to preside over, and hopefully champion, big changes for LGBT people and those with HIV. In this spirit, I thought I would begin the New Year by outlining a few examples of what real change might look like for our communities in the years ahead.

  • We would have an inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination law. Last year's big disappointment was Congress's failure to enact an employment nondiscrimination law. Adding insult to injury, the House removed protections for transgender people in the bill it eventually passed. Real change would give us a law that Lambda Legal could use to protect all LGBT people across the country from workplace discrimination.
  • "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would end. With lawsuits currently challenging the policy and more gay and lesbian servicemembers speaking out against it every day, there is no question that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is losing ground, even in Congress. I recently talked to Col. Grethe Cammermeyer — Lambda Legal had challenged the military's previous antigay policy on her behalf and won — and she talked about the tragedy of making people choose between living honestly and serving their country. This is a choice no one should have to make.
  • We would change the government's discriminatory HIV policies. More than four years ago, Lambda Legal filed a case on behalf of Lorenzo Taylor who, though he was more than qualified, was denied employment by the U.S. Foreign Service because he has HIV. The State Department under the current administration has stubbornly refused to change this discriminatory policy, and we are set to go to trial later this winter. Federal law prohibits the government from discriminating against people with disabilities, including HIV — and the government, if anyone, must comply with federal law. Similarly, discriminatory immigration policies targeting people with HIV must end.
  • Hate crimes protections would give young people across America safer schools and shield all of us from antigay violence. The defeat of last year's hate crimes bill — named after Matthew Shepherd, the gay Wyoming college student who was beaten to death in 1998 — marked another Congressional failure. While the bill was not directly aimed at students, it would have strengthened protections for them by making discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender and disabilities a federal crime. We are currently litigating two cases (in New Jersey and California) on behalf of gay students who were harassed in school. Students deserve to attend school without fearing violence and harassment because they are gay — real change would bring protections to help make this happen.
  • Marriage equality would be a reality. I've said it before and I'll say it again: LGBT people will not be truly equal until those same-sex couples who want to have the right to marry. This is beyond marriage. It is simply about being treated fairly under law. Real change would pave the way for marriage equality in every state.

When people speak about change, they often quote Gandhi, who said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." I like this because it gives each of us the chance to do our own small part to change the world we live in. And this is something we can hold on to regardless of who wins the next presidential election.

January 10, 2008