The 151st Delaware General Assembly — the most diverse assembly in the state’s history, according to State Sen. Sarah McBride — has focused on new measures to protect LGBTQ+ Delawareans.
In May, the assembly formed a bipartisan LGBTQ+ caucus made up of more than a dozen state representatives, which will create legislation to address LGBTQ+ issues in Delaware. The caucus is co-chaired by three LGBTQ+ representatives elected in the past election cycle, including Sen. McBride, the first transgender state senator in the country, Sen. Marie Pinkney, the first Black lesbian woman on the assembly, and Rep. Eric Morrison, the first openly gay man elected to the assembly.
The caucus was formed just weeks before the General Assembly unveiled its newly proposed equal rights amendment — House Bill 199 — which if passed, would make Delaware the first state in the nation to include LGBTQ+ protections in its state constitution. The bill awaits action in the House Administration Committee.
The caucus introduced that legislation at a rally in June, timed to take place during national Pride Month, which honors the work to secure equal civil rights and protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“This is a huge priority for our caucus,” Sen. McBride, who is also a sponsor to the bill, said last week at a rally at Legislative Hall. “We are continuing conversations around a number of other important issues that are facing the LGBTQ community. But ultimately, this constitutional amendment is the foundation of future progress, because it makes clear in the highest law of our state, that our government must treat everyone equally.”
In 2019, the General Assembly amended the state constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex under Delaware law, and later added protections based on race, color, and national origin in 2020. According to the proposed legislation on www.legis.delaware.gov, if passed, HB 199 would also prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.
In addition to HB 199, the General Assembly is working to alter the definitions of terms related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability in state code through HB 155, which offers numerous adjustments that would make the state’s equal rights protections more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons and people with disabilities. HB 155 was introduced on April 16 and moved out of committee on May 13.
HB 199 will not be enacted into law for at least two to three years, as any amendment to the state’s constitution must pass the legislature in identical form in two consecutive General Assembly sessions, according to state officials.
“There’s no silver bullet. Every fight for equality takes multiple actions, multiple steps for us to achieve dignity and justice for all, so this is a big part of it,” Sen. McBride said. “We’re going to continue those conversations, with the community and with our colleagues, about what else is necessary for us to ensure that every person in Delaware is free from the fear of discrimination and violence.”
Sen. Pinkney said she’s excited to work on this caucus with Sen. McBride and Rep. Morrison, but also the other members of the bipartisan caucus.
“It’s been amazing and exciting, especially because it’s not just the three of us,” Sen. Pinkney said. “It is Sen. Kyle, and Rep. Lambert and Rep. Ramon, and many others. Like it’s reflective of so many different backgrounds, individuals, and people just coming together and supporting one another.”
The caucus recently declared June 2021 as LGBTQ+ Pride Month in Delaware, through a concurrent resolution sponsored by Rep. Morrison. The act passed on June 15, according to the Delaware General Assembly’s website.
Rep. Morrison said in an interview that he knows some may see this resolution as a symbolic step, but nonetheless, he believes increasing visibility is meaningful to LGBTQ+ Delawareans.
“It’s not a law and I get it, you know, some people may see it as symbolic,” Rep. Morrison said. “But it means a lot to people to be able to see that, especially to people who are not out, especially to young people, it sends a strong message that people in power and people in a visible position, support equality, and we see you and we hear you.”
Rep. Morrison hinted that the caucus is working on updating the ‘gay panic’ defense in Delaware, a legal defense that seeks to use a persons’ sexual orientation or gender identity to excuse a defendants violent crimes. The ‘gay panic’ defense has already been eradicated in 15 states and the District of Columbia, some as recent as this year, according to the LGBT Bar: https://lgbtbar.org/programs/advocacy/gay-trans-panic-defense/
Rep Morrison noted, however, he does not expect legislation like this to be brought to the forefront before the legislative session ends this month.
“Some of these bigger pieces of legislation, you want to get them right, you want to work with partners, whether that be the Attorney General’s office, or the Department of Justice,” he said. “You don’t want to put out any half-baked legislation out there so it gets voted down. Once a piece of legislation is voted down for the session, it’s done for the session. In that sense, you only get one bite at the apple for the session, so you want to get it right the first time.”
In terms of future plans of the LGBTQ+ caucus, Rep. Morrison said he and his colleagues are considering ways to address issues like conversion therapy, mental health support for LGBTQ+ youth, and protections for LGBTQ+ seniors in long-term care facilities. He reiterated the importance of understanding intersectionality—the fluid ways that different forms of discrimination can intersect and impact one another — in any legislation that will address discrimination in Delaware.
“All of these issues are intersectional. So when you’re talking about raising the minimum wage, when you’re talking about paid family and medical leave, when you’re talking about environmental justice, poverty, institutionalized racism, all of those things cut across into the LGBTQ+ community,” Rep. Morrison said. “A lot of the things that we work on, you may not be able to label them as LGBTQ+ legislation, but all of those issues still cross into our community and effect our community.”
Delawareans ecstatic to see increased LGBTQ+ visibility
Kevin Barry, who has a beach home in Rehoboth Beach, emphasized the need for LGBTQ+ persons in public office because they understand the importance of fairly representing all Delawareans.
“That kind of representation brings a unique perspective,” he said. “I can tell with Sarah McBride, she has been very clear that she’s here to do the right thing for everyone. For her, and for us, that inclusivity doesn’t happen without that kind of representation. I think anyone can say, ‘Well I’m here for everyone,’ but they don’t really understand what that means. Someone like Sarah McBride really does.”
Lauren Haggerty of Milton said she voted for Sen. McBride because representation is a big priority for her.
“Seeing more representation with people like Sarah is so absolutely important,” she said. “That’s one of the things I love about living in Delaware, the legislature is more forward thinking.”
Ken Suter, who originally hails from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but owns a beach home in Rehoboth Beach, said the General Assembly ought to represent its LGBTQ+ constituents.
“If the General Assembly is supposed to represent the people, then it needs to reflect the people. So it’s good to see that’s actually happening here,” Mr. Suter said. “In Pennsylvania, where I live full time, we only have one openly gay representative, and that was a milestone for us.”
Mr. Barry said in terms of future legislation, he hopes representatives like Sen. McBride will continue to defend the LGBTQ+ protections Delaware has in place.
“I think now is a really important time, while its really fantastic that we are here and able to celebrate, there’s been a lot of push back around the country too,” Mr. Barry said. “I think people in positions like state legislators, are especially in a position where they really have to defend the progress we’ve made, and make sure the pushback we’re seeing isn’t going too far.”
Protecting LGBTQ+ youth crucial to Delaware activists
Barbara Antlitz, youth coordinator for LGBTQ+ advocacy group CAMP Rehoboth, said increased representation in the General Assembly is especially important in paving the future for LGBTQ+ youth.
“Having a voice, for all of us, is just really important. And for the youth, it gives them some hope for the future. They see themselves being represented in the three of them [Sen. McBride, Sen. Pinkey, and Rep. Morrison]. I could go on and on, but it’s just such a brighter future,” Antliz said. “This is something that we really need to look at and be grateful to have queer people in office.”
Antlitz brought two area teens to the Thursday rally at Legislative Hall to show their support for HB 199. JaLynn Hope, a recent Cape Henlopen High School graduate who uses they/them pronouns, said it inspires them to see politicians who represent their interests in the General Assembly.
“My vision of like, senators, legislators, and people who make the laws, has always been like, just old white dudes. It’s nice to see that not everyone out there is like that. There’s young people, there’s people of color, there’s gay people, there’s everyone out there. So it’s nice to see like, ‘Hey, that could be me,’” said Hope, who will attend Howard University in the fall.
Edward Alban, a transgender man who recently graduated from Sussex Central High School, said he hopes state legislators will pass more laws to protect LGBTQ+ people across the state.
“Living downstate, I see and hear a lot of people who don’t feel safe down there, and don’t feel comfortable going out and being themselves,” he said. “So I think it’s important to put laws in place to protect queer people, so that we can feel a little bit safer walking down the street, going to shops, and having a job.”