The late Rep. John Lewis, who died Friday at 80, was best known for his work in the civil rights movement, quite literally placing his life on the line to protect and advance the rights of Black Americans. But Lewis was also a staunch and early defender of LGBTQ rights, having cosponsored more than a dozen bills throughout his career as a lawmaker to protect and advance the rights of LGBTQ people.
Among those bills was the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity, and of which Lewis was a lead sponsor, as well as the Respect for Marriage Act, which aimed to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and legalize same-sex marriage.
In 1996, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech against DOMA on the floor of the House, a rare showing of public support for marriage equality at a time when about two-thirds of Americans opposed letting gay couples marry, according to a Pew poll.
"This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence," Lewis said at the time. "It denies gay men and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right."
Following a Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Lewis issued a statement celebrating the decision.
“As a nation, we cannot say we are committed to equality, if we do not mandate equality for every citizen. You cannot have equality for some in America and not equality for all," he said. "This is another major step down a very long road toward the realization of a fair and just society. We should embrace the decision of the United States Supreme Court. It is now the law of the land.”
Lewis linked the struggle for LGBTQ rights to those faced by Black Americans in the civil rights movement in a 2003 editorial for the Boston Globe.
"I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation," Lewis wrote. "I've heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry."
He also chastised those who called for same-sex couples to be joined in unions, but not in marriage.
"We have been down that road before in this country. Separate is not equal," he wrote. "[O]ur rights as Americans do not depend on the approval of others. Our rights depend on us being Americans."
As a member of Congress, Lewis sponsored the Every Child Deserves A Family Act, which prohibited agencies from discriminating against potential adoptive parents based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Too many children dream of a stable, loving family,” Lewis said in 2019. “Many adults want to open their homes and their hearts, but they also are facing more and more barriers, because some officials can say they practice the wrong religion, love the wrong person, or are not married."
In 2016, Lewis led a congressional sit-in against gun violence following the mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in which a gunman killed 49 people, many of whom belonged to the LGBTQ community.
"John Lewis exemplified commitment to change both from outside and within," Kevin Jennings, the CEO of Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, said in a statement.
In recent years, Lewis opposed the Trump administration's proposal to dismantle nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, particularly for transgender individuals. In June, he strongly criticized the administration for revising the Affordable Care Act to allow healthcare providers to deny service to transgender people amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Our nation is in the midst of a public health crisis. Never before has respecting the dignity and worth of every human being been more important," Lewis said in May. "At a moment when health care access for vulnerable communities is critical, the decision of the administration to issue this rule is a shame, a disgrace, and a blatant desertion of responsibility and duty."
In the wake of his death, LGBTQ advocates and organizations on Twitter recounted Lewis's contributions to the fight for equality, particularly in regards to LGBTQ rights.
“Future generations will learn how he faced down discrimination with courage and defiance, boldly challenging the United States to envision a future where every person, no matter their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, has an equal chance at the American Dream,” Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David said in a statement. “His legacy will live on in the work we do every day to further his mission and continue to get into ‘good trouble’ in the name of equality and justice."