Introduction and summary
It has been more than a year since the Senate Judiciary Committee held its historic hearing on the Equality Act.1 If passed and signed into law, this legislation would provide clear and comprehensive federal protections against discrimination2 for millions3 of LGBTQI+ Americans. Sadly, in the absence of federal legislation, the landscape of legal protections for LGBTQI+ Americans remains complex and inconsistent. Currently, there are 29 states4 in which LGBTQI+ individuals are not fully protected from discrimination. Many states have actively discriminatory policies.5 And, with more than 1206 anti-LGBTQI+ bills introduced in state legislatures in January 2022 alone—including South Dakota passing the first anti-transgender legislation of the year—this number is slated to increase. However, there are 21 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and at least 330 municipalities that fully and explicitly prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and public accommodations.7 Existing studies of these antidiscrimination laws show that protections for LGBTQI+ individuals improve health and employment outcomes for those affected; lessen homophobia and social stigma; and lead to improved overall economic outcomes.
LGBTQI+ protections benefit LGBTQI+ people
Many states and localities have established nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQI+ individuals in areas such as employment, housing, and education. Prior literature has examined the ways in which each of these forms of protection has impacted LGBTQI+ individuals—and the results indicate that protections have resounding benefits.
Improved mental and physical health. In states with protections, data show that LGB individuals are less likely to report mental health issues—including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and dysthymia—and experience improved overall physical health.8 Sexual minority women are also more likely to report satisfaction with their health care providers and to report disclosing their sexual identity to health care providers. This result indicates that nondiscrimination protections can foster both higher levels of trust in the medical system amongst LGB patients and the ability of LGB people to receive care related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.9
For transgender individuals specifically, living in states with more inclusive policies for gender nondiscrimination, health insurance coverage, and changing legal documents was associated with reduced odds of avoiding health care due to fear of mistreatment—an issue of great importance given the high barriers10 to care for many transgender Americans.11 One study of transgender veterans found that those living in states with employment nondiscrimination protections were 26 percent less likely to have a bipolar or depressive disorder and 43 percent less likely to engage in self-harm, while another found that an increased number of positive gender-identity policies by state is associated with decreased alcohol consumption.12 Notably, nondiscrimination policies have been proven to massively decrease the risk of suicidality for transgender individuals.13
Higher employment and wages. A bevy of literature has proven that LGB individuals in states with employment nondiscrimination laws experience higher rates of employment and better wages than in states without. 14 One 2020 study found that anti-discrimination laws reduce the gay male labor force participation gap by 18 percent, the employment gap by 17 percent, and the wage gap by 11 percent.15
Improved employment experiences. In states with employment anti-discrimination laws, resource managers are proven to use less bias when evaluating LGB applicants for jobs when compared to states without protections.16 One field study sent researchers, some with pride apparel and some without, to hundreds of retail interviews in both areas with and without LGBTQ employment protections and analyzed the taped interviews to compare the treatment of interviewees. This research found that in areas with protections, LGB applicants were treated significantly better than in areas without.17 LGB employees in states with protections are also more likely to file discrimination claims than in states without, with the utilization of discrimination protections in these states meeting “the same general range that race and sex-discrimination laws are used by people of color and women,” indicating that employees understand their legal rights and have the capacity to fight for equal treatment.18 Interestingly, research has shown that state nondiscrimination state laws increase the likelihood of LGBT-friendly HR practices—such as more inclusive employment benefits, higher organizational LGBT competency, and stronger public commitment to LGBTQI+ issues—at companies headquartered in the areas impacted.19
Improved school environments. Research indicates that LGBTQ youth in states with LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections for students are significantly less likely to experience bullying than those in states without.20 States with more nondiscrimination protections on a range of issues—such as employment, housing, and public accommodations—have also been associated with improved school safety, less cyberbullying, and higher reported grades for LGBT students.21 One study found that states with laws protecting LGBTQ students were more likely to have school districts requiring GSAs (gay-straight alliances) in schools than those in states with no protections.22 Increased LGB state-level protections have also been associated with lower levels of drug use by LGB adolescents.23
Less social stigma and discrimination. Several studies have confirmed that in states with inclusive nondiscrimination policies, LGBTQ people perceive fewer negative messages in their environments, higher levels of social support, and lower levels of internalized homophobia.24 Evidence also suggests that state employment nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people are related to a reduction in the incidence of hate crimes.25 This suggests that when governments make the protection of LGBTQI+ individuals a priority, perceptions of LGBTQI+ people change for the better.
Less housing discrimination. One study examining the impact of local and state housing non-discrimination laws on discrimination towards renters and showed mixed-to-positive effects of protections.26 An analysis by the Center for American Progress involved self-identified transgender women calling homeless shelters both in states with and without gender identity nondiscrimination protections to inquire about the availability of beds. It found that shelters in states with protections were twice as likely to provide the caller with appropriate shelter.27
LGBTQI+ protections benefit everyone
Beyond implications for LGBTQI+ individuals, a small but critical body of literature has examined the impact of state, local, and national discrimination protections on economic performance. Increased protections allow LGBTQI+ individuals to more fully bring their talents to existing businesses and solo ventures, leading to improved economic growth.
Business performance. Employment discrimination protections have been shown to spur innovation and increase firm performance.28 In fact, firms headquartered in states that have passed LGBTQ employment nondiscrimination legislation had patenting rates 8 percent higher than those of firms headquartered in states without such legislation, as well as patent citation rates 11 percent higher.29
Successful startups. State legislation that bans discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in the labor market makes existing workplaces safer spaces for employees—meaning workers are less likely to leave because of discrimination. This leads to an increase in the overall quality and growth of startup ventures because workers only leave to pursue startups when they are in financially stable positions.30
Nationwide economic growth. International studies of LGBT anti-discrimination protections by country have found that legal rights for LGBT individuals reinforces economic growth and improvements in health and labor markets, as LGBT individuals are able to participate more fully in economies.31 In fact, a 2019 study found that for every additional right for sexual minority persons in a country, there was a $320 increase in GDP per capita, or about 3 percent of the average GDP per capita for the countries studied.32
Research on the impact of nondiscrimination protections is limited
There is still much research missing on the impact of nondiscrimination protections, both because of the recency of much of the relevant legislation and because of a widespread lack of data. Currently, there are only a small handful of federal surveys that include questions on sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex traits, and while many researchers and organizations (including the Center for American Progress) conduct independent surveys of LGBTQI+ populations, these efforts often face limitations in both sample size and longevity, making it incredibly difficult to create large-scale panel data. This is especially true for research on intersex populations, as there are currently no intersex status questions on any federally funded general population surveys.33
This lack of data poses problems for both study quantity and study quality. For one, most existing literature is related to employment and economic outcomes, with few-to-no analyses of topics such as nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations or credit. In addition, much of existing literature centers around LGB populations, particularly gay men, limiting its relevancy and scope. Few of these studies account for the differences between nondiscrimination protections by state (for example, extent, enforcement), and many face difficulties controlling for the myriad variables that influence LGBTQI+ perceptions and treatment, which also limits their efficacy.
Much existing research relies on data from various U.S. Census Bureau surveys. The Census Bureau collects information on same-sex couples in a number of its surveys—including the American Community Survey and the decennial census—but this question acts as a limited proxy measure. At best, roughly 1 in 6 LGBTQI+ individuals are captured by this question.34 Critically, this proxy measure captures a subset of LGBTQI+ individuals who have the capacity to cohabitate or marry, likely including elevated proportions of white35 and wealthy36 LGBTQI+ individuals.
There has been much legislative debate over what would happen if LGBTQI+ nondiscrimination became the law of the land, particularly given that 79 percent of Americans favor nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.37 In many U.S. states, and in many countries around the world, this theoretical scenario is the reality—and the impacts are clear. Equal rights under the law improve mental and physical health, decrease stigma, and lead to clear and significant economic benefits for both businesses and countries. The research is in: It’s time to pass the Equality Act so we can start seeing these benefits across the United States.
Author’s note: The studies cited in this brief examine various groupings of sexual and gender minorities. Some studies include samples of gay and lesbian individuals, others look solely at transgender individuals, and some broadly take samples of LGBT individuals. The acronyms used in each sentence of this brief reflect the citations at the end of the respective sentence and include all of the acronym letters that were studied by the reports cited. For example, a sentence that includes a study of LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) individuals and a study of transgender individuals would use the acronym LGBT when cumulatively describing study findings.