How LGBT rights are still hindered in N.J. from old laws still on the books

By Chris Donnelly

More Americans are becoming uncomfortable with direct or indirect interaction with a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. While disheartening, these results from a recent poll released by GLAAD (a leading LGBT media-focused organization) should not come as a shock.

Even in New Jersey — which has made incredible strides over the past decade on LGBT issues — there remain laws that institutionalize bias against members of the LGBT community.

The issues that impact the LGBT community go far deeper than bigotry masked as religious freedom-loving bakers or marriage equalit y. While important, they are still not the sole reason for anti-LGBT sentiment in New Jersey and across the country.

This sentiment manifests itself in many forms, some straightforward: acts of violence or vandalism, or messages of hate. But much of the bias hides beneath a mask of marginal acceptance. In other words, people are willing to bestow upon the LGBT community rights they themselves are comfortable with, but will not go further than that if it makes them feel, well, icky inside.

Those sentiments are evident in GLAAD’s poll. Americans still largely support general LGBT rights. But more non-LGBT people are getting uncomfortable with the thought of specific involvement and engagement on issues that are supportive of the LBGT community.

These attitudes have been sanctioned by the statements and policies of President Donald Trump.His rhetoric has a ripple effect that impacts all minority and oppressed groups.

But let’s be honest. These feelings of discomfort have probably always been there. The president has simply made it OK to now publicly express them.

New Jersey, while late to the party on marriage equality, has been more progressive on LGBT equality and rights. Credit must be given to elected officials who were at the forefront of equality, such as state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, recently retired Sen. Raymond Lesniak, Assemblymen Reed Gusciora and Tim Eustace, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

But GLAAD’s poll shows the fight for equality continues.

There must be renewed vigor and emphasis on rectifying issues that may not make the headlines, and yet contribute to the continuing stigma of being LGBT in America. Organizations such asGarden State Equality, GLAAD, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal have and will continue to lead the charge, but these organizations cannot do it alone. The people of New Jersey and our lawmakers must help us tackle and defeat these biases.

Some of these issues are easily addressed. For example, in New Jersey it is still legal to dismiss a potential juror based on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. We can become the first state east of the Mississippi to ban this outdated policy.

A bill currently making its way through the state Legislature would make it easier for transgender individuals to revise their birth certificates. While vetoed twice by our last governor, Gov. Phil Murphy has pledged his support.

Also, there are countless LGBT military veterans in New Jersey who were unfairly discharged during the days of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This injustice has resulted in these brave men and women being ineligible for benefits they are entitled to by way of their defense of our country.

These issues add up, both in a literal and figurative sense.

When people are constantly told they are not as good as others — that they are not normal — and those sentiments are backed by our own laws, the results can be devastating. One of the consequences is the incredibly high rate of LGBT youths who are homeless, suffering from drug addiction or being harassed and bullied. Words matter. Deeds matter. Laws matter.

We cannot truly address these issues until we get at the root causes of them: lack of acceptance, lack of understanding, lack of compassion for our LGBT brothers and sisters.

That means ensuring our government and judicial systems no longer support and implement laws that ingrain bias into the public’s mind. The LGBT community has made tremendous strides over the past decade. But clearly, our work is not done yet.

Chris Donnelly, a principal at the public affairs and consulting firm Kivvit in Asbury Park, serves on the Garden State Equality’s Action Fund Executive Committee. He was communications director for New Jersey United For Marriage, a grassroots campaign to bring marriage equality to New Jersey.

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