Chicago, IL -
While Congress has dragged its feet on passing laws prohibiting discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the Obama administration has implemented new federal rules that prohibit discrimination in housing, at least when federal funds are involved.
That, in turn, has made it easier to enforce Illinois' prohibition against such discrimination, thanks to a strong partnership fostered by Illinois officials and the Obama administration.
In February the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published a new regulation that prohibits HUD-funded and HUD-insured housing providers, as well as FHA-approved lenders, from basing eligibility determinations on actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation or marital status.
"It basically gives the transgender community the ability to go into federal court, whereas in previous administrations they couldn't do that," said Rocco Claps, director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights. "It helps in states where they have no protection at all."
It also helps in Illinois, which has prohibited such discrimination since 2005, because Claps and IDHR can now work with HUD to enforce the protections in cases affected by the new HUD rules.
"When you file with us you're basically filing with the federal government," Claps said. "Our agency has a workshare agreement with the (federal) Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and HUD."
That partnership means IDHR can focus more of its resources on enforcing state anti-discrimination protections not covered by federal regulations.
"It really is a benefit for the state," Claps said.
The new HUD regulation is the result of efforts begun by federal officials shortly after President Obama took office. Under Obama, HUD has held hearings and forums across the country to determine the extent and scope of housing discrimination against transgenders, as well as to examine housing issues faced by other members of the LGBT community, including LGBT seniors.
"These are very strong policies that we are carrying across the country," said John Trasviña, assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD.
Just over 40 percent of the U.S. population is covered by local and state laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTs, but the new HUD regulation gives LGBTs in other parts of the country some protection now.
"The access to HUD and housing programs in these states is the same as in other states," Trasviña said, noting that HUD is already pursuing discrimination claims under the new regulation in states such as Florida and Virginia, where LGBTs don't have statewide non-discrimination protections like Illinois.
And Trasviña said HUD is working with partners such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to get the word out to LGBTs in every state about the new regulation.
"We've had tremendous support from NCLR and NGLTF. They are able to reach out in places outside of, say, Chicago or Boston," Trasviña said. "For example, we were up in Eastern Washington and able to have a meeting focusing on LGBT housing rights. ...It's great to have a rule but it's only good if people around the country know about it."
HUD also has LGBT-focused ads on the regulation as part of its "Live Free" educational campaign.
All this has drawn praise from LGBT activists such as Illinois' Rick Garcia, director of policy and political action for The Civil Rights Agenda
"This not only sets an important tone," Garcia said. "It gives people the tools they need."
Garcia said the new HUD regulation illustrates how Obama has directed officials under him to do what they can to lessen discrimination against LGBTs despite congressional inaction on such measures as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
"There has been an unbelievable amount of progress under the Obama administration," Garcia said. "He has to go through Congress for some things, but this administration has done as much as it can possibly do to make sure that LGBT people in this country are treated fairly."
Garcia, though, cautioned that until Congress acts on measures such as ENDA, much of the progress for LGBTs could be reversed if Obama isn't in the Oval Office.
"There are many, many significant things that this administration has done," Garcia said. "If we have an anti-gay administration, that could all be undone."
And Garcia praised Claps and HUD for working together to strengthen protections for LGBTs.
"What I'm really excited about is how they are partnering with Illinois. That brings federal resources to Illinois, and in this day and age that's wonderful," Garcia said. "This is such a tribute to Director Claps."