President Joe Biden has announced that he will move ahead with a proposed Equality Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A decision celebrated by Liberal America, it will be the first such legislation to be implemented at US federal level. Campaigners argue this is necessary in a nation where, in many states, it’s still legal to refuse housing or services to someone on the basis of being gay or trans. But the legislation comes with a sting in the tail for women, which may prove unexpectedly costly to the Democrats.
Unlike the UK’s 2010 Equality Act, which treats ‘sex’ and ‘gender reassignment’ as separate categories, the proposed American Equality Act effectively merges the two in ‘gender identity’. That is, it would sign into law provisions that require an individual to be treated in all ways as the sex he or she feels themselves to be on the inside. Sex would become, legally speaking, a matter of felt identity rather than observable reality. In practice, this change will be to the detriment of women in need of single-sex spaces, for example in prisons, domestic abuse shelters or school sports.
The legislation is also striking in what it reveals about the new administration’s priorities.
Biden has already indicated that his previous commitment to raise the minimum wage is unlikely to make it into the COVID relief bill, remaining a ‘jam tomorrow’ proposition. The oft-noted capture of formerly working-class political parties by bourgeois priorities could be no more richly illustrated than by a Left-wing administration willing to push through laws permitting males to compete in women’s sports, while kicking the can down the road on the minimum wage.
Conservatives have noticed, and are on manoeuvres. Commentators and politicians are calling for a new, multi-ethnic working-class conservatism, freed from ‘free market’ dogma and willing to mobilise state power in the interests of working-class Americans. Thanks to the Equality Act, a defence of women’s interests is now also an open conservative goal.
Biden may have calculated that more will be gained by prioritising the needs of America’s estimated 9 million LGBT people than its 1.8 million minimum wage workers. He may be taking women’s liberal loyalties too much for granted, though. The Human Rights Campaign argues that this represents a ‘unifying issue’ for America, but the fact that this legislation is already bringing together conservative polemicists and radical feminists in opposition suggests it is unifying, just not in the way liberal activists expected.
Most profoundly, it has the potential to radicalise suburban mothers, a classically swing-voting group that’s often tepidly centre-left but will walk through fire for their children. Come next election, were the Republicans to repeal self-ID and legislate for — say — better maternity provision and family support, they might yet answer the Democrats’ claim to be the party of feminism by becoming the party of females. And there are many more American females than there are American feminists.
In that scenario, all the GOP need do is field a presidential candidate who is not obviously an idiot or sociopath. Biden has misjudged this issue badly.