SALT LAKE CITY — The way Americans perceive discrimination is increasingly split along party lines, and a recent surge in discrimination-related lawsuits and legislation may help explain why.
In 2019, 57 percent of U.S. adults who identify with or lean toward the Democratic party say gays and lesbians face "a lot" of discrimination, compared to just 22 percent of those who identity or lean Republican — a 35-percentage-point gap, according to a new analysis from Pew Research Center.
In 2013, there was only a 16-percentage-point gap between Democrats (46 percent) and Republicans (30 percent).
Similarly, the partisan gap in perception of discrimination against evangelical Christians rose from 12 percentage points in 2016 to 22 percentage points today, Pew reported.
We're becoming "more fractured," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois.
That's likely an unintended consequence of efforts to expand or clarify the rights of LGBTQ Americans and conservative people of faith. As Congress, state legislatures and judges have considered a growing number of bills and cases, debates have emphasized reasons to fight rather than find common ground.
"There are so many forces that push us into conflict and make it tempting to exaggerate differences," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Few civil rights activists set out to be one of those divisive forces. Discrimination lawsuits should increase understanding of marginalized communities, not partisanship, said James Esseks, director of the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and HIV Project.
"We're trying to get to a place where we have a shared understanding of the American populace and the problems that all different groups within America face," he said.
But the legal system often encourages a winner-take-all approach, rather than mutual understanding, Wilson said. Moving forward, Americans need to reckon with discrimination in all forms, not just the types that members of their political party care about.
"Protecting other people (from discrimination) is the best way to protect yourself," she said.
The ACLU has filed or joined a number of discrimination-related lawsuits in recent years, including two of the sex discrimination cases before the Supreme Court this fall. Through these lawsuits, the organization works to clarify laws and seek justice for its clients, while also educating the public about the difficult situations LGBTQ people face, Esseks said.
"We know some people have questions about how much (anti-LGBTQ discrimination) happens," he said. "The reality is that it happens all the time and it's devastating."
The educational value of lawsuits was evident during the fight for same-sex marriage, he noted. As high-profile lawsuits worked their way through the legal system, public support for the practice surged.
"I think the process of the court considering those cases and the media writing stories about people involved in those cases was part of the country's journey toward learning about same-sex couples," Esseks said.
However, lawsuits do more than increase awareness of the issues involved, Wilson said. They can also make it seem as if there is no middle ground between warring parties.
"A lawsuit is never about finding a way to accommodate both sides. It's trying to win so the other guy loses," she said.
Few Americans are OK with LGBTQ people being fired simply because they're gay or transgender. Sixty-nine percent of U.S. adults support laws that would protect gay, lesbian and transgender Americans from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
But people still disagree over the best way to protect them and whether it's necessary to also protect conservative religious employers, including faith-based schools like Brigham Young University.
"Some people of faith are hoping to retain discretion over" LGBTQ-related policies, such as restroom or dorm access, at religiously affiliated schools or businesses, Wilson said.
That nuance can get lost in debates surrounding court cases, she added. Some people act as if LGBTQ discrimination doesn't exist, and others as if religious freedom claims are motivated by anti-LGBTQ animus.
"That's just dismissing the needs of the other community, instead of saying, 'I understand their needs and I also want my needs to be taken into account,'" she said.
Legislative efforts to address discrimination can allow for better debates than lawsuits, but even that process has been affected by rising polarization. Few bills related to religious freedom or LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections receive bipartisan support, and many are one-sided, concerned about only the needs of religious leaders or LGBTQ people, instead of both, as the Deseret News reported last year.
Americans increasingly attack the people they disagree with rather than seek compromise or acknowledge complexity, Wilson said.
"That denigrates other people, as opposed to saying, 'I believe these other people have worth, and I should be treated with dignity as well,'" she said.
Wilson tries to model a better approach through a program called Tolerance Means Dialogues, which brings together legal experts, civil rights advocates and college students on college campuses across the country. Participants meet for one to two hours, discussing complex issues like discrimination and working together to move beyond winner-take-all thinking.
"Making personal connections is a sort of 'bottom-up' way to forge … solutions," said Thomas Berg, a law and public policy professor at St. Thomas University, about the program last year.
Minter has taken part in several of Wilson's events. He describes the program as "probably the most important work" he's doing right now.
"I think the fatal flaw of our current politics is people on both sides of so many issues thinking that compromise is anathema and the better strategy is to wait until they have absolute power and can insist upon the exact laws they want to see enacted," he said.
That type of thinking makes trying to understand or empathize with someone different than you seem like a weakness, Minter added.
"I do worry that, increasingly, people in this country live in almost two separate worlds because we have become so politically and socially polarized," he said. Pew's research shows those separate worlds emerging over time, highlighting a widening gulf between Democrats' and Republicans' views on discrimination.
However, there's growing interest in addressing polarization, according to Wilson and Minter.
"I have been really encouraged by how many people seem to be becoming aware (of polarization) and want to move past it," Minter said.75 comments on this story
Since 2017, Wilson has hosted 10 dialogue events in eight states and has two more planned for later this year, including one at BYU. She's also released a new book on the common ground between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights advocates, further promoting the idea that we'll all be better off if we work together.
Current political trends won't be reversed overnight. But taking the time to learn about someone else's beliefs, experiences and concerns is a step in the right direction, Wilson said.
"It's really, really hard to ask for your inherent worth to be respected while you're denying the inherent worth of everybody around you," she said.