I'm a Texan and a Republican, and That Is Exactly Why I'm Urging the Supreme Court to Protect LGBTQ Americans | Opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month on three employment discrimination cases—cases in which the plaintiffs were fired not because of job performance but simply for being gay or transgender. As a lifelong Republican, I believe all Americans should have the opportunity to work and the freedom to go about their daily lives without the fear of discrimination. Some of the most prominent Republican-appointed federal judges in the country have already recognized that existing federal civil rights laws extend to gay and transgender Americans. The Supreme Court should likewise reaffirm these protections for our LGBTQ neighbors, who deserve the same opportunity as everyone else to be judged on their merits, and to work, earn a living and contribute to their communities.

This may not be a common public position for a Texas Republican politician, but it reflects majority opinion in the state, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, and people of every race and every major faith tradition.

As speaker of the Texas House of Representatives from 2009-19, I tried to be a listener and a consensus-builder focused on improving people's daily lives, rather than on extreme polarization. Over the years, I have watched Texans grow and learn and change on LGBTQ rights. I've gone through that learning and growth myself, especially in recent years, when we forged a diverse coalition—from the business community to faith leaders to law enforcement—to push back against wrongheaded efforts to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

When a so-called "bathroom bill" targeting transgender Texans became a top priority for some of our state's elected officials in 2017, I immediately understood the economic risks such legislation carried. In 2016, a similar bill wreaked havoc in North Carolina. Texas faced similar or greater damage in the form of lost tourism events, corporate investments and talented workers. As the debate in Austin raged on, we lost $66 million in canceled conventions. In my hometown of San Antonio, the NCAA Men's Final Four was slated to be held in 2018, but the pointless obsession with bathrooms jeopardized this lucrative event. We heard—and still hear—from major employers and small business owners that discriminatory rhetoric and laws are bad for businesses and contradict their values.

Even more than the potential economic fallout, I worried about the human cost of discrimination. During this fight, I got to know many LGBTQ Texans, and especially transgender people, and their families. That summer, as some in the state repeatedly demonized transgender people, we learned that calls to an LGBTQ youth crisis hotline hit unprecedented levels. I met children struggling in school because they weren't allowed to use the bathroom, and I watched as parents gave impassioned testimony at late-night committee hearings while holding sleeping children in their arms. It became clear that, to many families, this was about something much greater than the economic impact.

LGBTQ Rights Supreme Court
Demonstrators in favor of LGBTQ rights rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., October 8, as the court holds oral arguments in three cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

The cases now before the Supreme Court deal specifically with discrimination in the workplace, where the economic impacts are clear: Discrimination can shatter morale, harm productivity and contribute to higher employee turnover. But the human cost is real, too: Discrimination can strip people of their pride and rob them of the opportunity to do good work and earn a living for their families. In these cases, respect for our common humanity and for the dignity of every individual should prevail.

These cases are important because, as many people are surprised to learn, there are no federal laws explicitly protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in the workplace. Almost 30 states—including Texas—also lack specific statewide protections. The Supreme Court now has the chance to make explicit what is already implicit—and to do so consistent with the text of the law, with its own precedents, and with rulings by a rising number of lower federal courts. Some 206 major businesses have signed a "friend of the court" brief urging the court to recognize that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal. This reinforces what I have heard in my travels throughout Texas and the country: It is pro-business to be anti-discrimination.

LGBTQ people deserve protection from discrimination. No matter how the Supreme Court decides on these cases, there is still work to do to ensure the freedom for our LGBTQ neighbors and friends to live, work and contribute to their communities. Respecting human dignity, striving for mutual respect and ensuring equal opportunity are nonpartisan values. They are goals we can all work toward together.

Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, served as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives from 2009 to 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.