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First Republican U.S. Senator Co-Sponsors LGBT Equality Act

Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois told BuzzFeed News that discrimination on the basis of being gay is illegal in his state "and should be against the law nationwide."

Posted on January 19, 2016, at 6:16 p.m. ET

AP / Nam Y. Huh

Mark Kirk of Illinois became the first U.S. Republican senator to co-sponsor the Equality Act on Tuesday, turning the LGBT anti-discrimination bill into a bipartisan effort in both chambers of Congress.

"Discrimination on the basis of being gay is against the law in Illinois and should be against the law nationwide,” Kirk told BuzzFeed News.

Kirk has been outspoken among Republicans for marriage equality and LGBT protections, but he did not elaborate on why he signed on to the bill six months after it was introduced. Still, Kirk's comment gives insight to tensions faced by lawmakers who represent states that ban LGBT discrimination but belong to a political party that has historically opposed LGBT-rights laws.

The Equality Act would bar discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity by expanding a band of civil rights laws β€” which already protect individuals on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.

If passed by a future Congress, it would be the most comprehensive federal policy to protect LGBT rights in housing, workplaces, schools, public accommodations, financial institutions, and other settings.

The measure is unlikely to pass in the current Republican-dominated Congress, but Sen. Jeff Merkley, lead sponsor of the Senate bill, lauded support from across the aisle.

β€œIn communities across America, Republicans and Democrats alike share a common belief that discriminating against someone just because of who they are is fundamentally wrong," he told BuzzFeed News. "It is time for all Americans to work together to end long-standing discrimination against the LGBT community.”

Democrats also got a boost in the House last week when Rep. Robert Dold, also from Illinois, announced he would co-sponsor the House version of the Equality Act. Dold was the bill's the first Republican co-sponsor in Congress.

The House version is sponsored by Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline.