Pride in Equality

My grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, dedicated his life to his vision of a world where all people are treated with dignity and respect. He believed that no one in America can justify mistreatment. While in the 1960s he fought for the rights of the poor, of African Americans and of migrant farmworkers and of those struggling under Apartheid South Africa, if alive today I know he would stand up, with as much vigor, for the rights of LGBTQ Americans and their families. In a speech in South Africa my grandfather famously said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope”. He called on each of us to find our role in our society to do just that.

In the United States today, LGBTQ individuals face challenges of stigma and discrimination that straight and cis-gender individuals do not. In my own public health career, I have had the honor to be part of the national and global advocacy to protect and defend the rights of LGTBQ persons access to non-discriminatory healthcare. A lesbian woman diagnosed with breast cancer should have access to the same level of high-quality healthcare as a straight woman. However, for many reasons that is often not her experience in this country. Discrimination can come in many forms, from outright denial of care, which now is legally permissible, to the provision of substandard care, including not feeling supported and respected through the process. This mistreatment is not only unjust, but it has also been shown to lead to poorer health outcomes. The health disparities that exist, or unjustified disparities in any field, should compel us to a call to action to provide equal protection under our law.

Pennsylvanians have taken a step forward under the leadership of Governor Tom Wolf. By signing into order the Commission on LGBTQ Affairs in 2018, he not only made Pennsylvania the first in the nation to have such a commission; but, also ensured the visibility and advancement of the LGBTQ+ community. However, those of us in Pennsylvania concerned with the rights of LGBTQ Americans must look at places like Bucks County, where a teacher was fired for the sole reason of being gay.

Across the federal government, there are renewed efforts to weaken protections for LGBT persons, and providing exceptions and opportunities to allow discrimination. From creating religious exemptions in the provision of healthcare, to making it more difficult for transgender individuals to access federally funded homeless shelters, these types of policy choices potentially put people in dangerous situations. Using a “religious consideration” to justify discrimination creates a slippery slope that should make of us concerned. To quote Pope Francis on gay marriage, “Who am I to judge?”

Discrimination has even been championed through efforts like President Trump’s transgender ban in our military.  A 2016 study by the Rand Corporation found that as many as 10,790 transgender individuals were serving in the US military or the reserves. That year, all three service secretaries, including then-Acting Secretary of the Army, Patrick Murphy put policy in place to allow transgender troops to serve.  In 2017, PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro signed onto a letter with 18 other Attorneys General that called for Congress to include transgender protections in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) in response to the president’s transgender military ban.

During LGBTQ+ Pride month, let us look back on the progress we’ve made thus far and remember that there is broad support of the LGBT communities in this country, even when the opposing voices get loud. Our values beckon us to stand with, not in place of the LGBTQ+ community, to form a large enough coalition to win universal freedoms. Let us continue our work, ensuring that all Americans are treated with dignity and respect, and find our own path in creating tiny ripples of hope to those who believe in equality.  

Maeve Kennedy McKean is a human rights lawyer and the Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives. She serves on the Advisory Board of Kennedy Democrats.

Maeve Kennedy McKean