Civil Rights

United States Capitol Image courtesy of Eric B. Walker This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

APA advocates for federal policies and programs that ensure all Americans are treated fairly under the law. We particularly focus on issues affecting marginalized communities, such as sexual and gender minorities, women, ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities.

Our Focus

We particularly focus on civil rights issues faced by marginalized groups, including:
Group of people at a civil rights protest



Answering MLK Jr.'s Wake-up Call

2017-09-mlk On the 50th anniversary of King's speech at APA's convention, psychologists reflect on how much has changed and how much more needs to be done. 


The Case for a New Justice Framework in the U.S.

In this episode of APA Journals Dialogue, Dr. Kimberly Westcott discusses the current and historical trauma related to incarceration in the United States and proposes alternative justice frameworks. A transcript is also available.

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Highlights of APA Advocacy Related to Civil Rights

APA Co-Sponsored Congressional Briefing Related to the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

On May 17, 2018, APA hosted a congressional briefing to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. The briefing was co-hosted with the Center for American Progress and the Fenway Institute, and organized with the help of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. Speakers were all psychologists, including Sean Cahill, PhD, Colt Keo-Meyer, PhD, Laura Durso, PhD, Margaret Rosario, PhD, and moderator Clinton Anderson, PhD, interim executive director of APA’s Public Interest Directorate. 

The panelists reviewed the current political landscape impacting sexual and gender minorities, explained psychological and public health evidence of both the harmful health effects of discriminatory policies and the protective effects of supportive policies, and suggested specific policy recommendations. A newly released issue brief, Public Policies, Prejudice, and Sexual and Gender Minority Health (PDF, 2.72MB) summarizes policy developments within the past year and describes legislative, administrative and regulatory solutions.

August 2018

On Aug. 3, APA sent a letter (PDF, 96KB) to the Federal Bureau of Prisons expressing concerns about a recent change to the Transgender Offender Manual. Along with 25 cosigners from the mental and behavioral health community, APA stressed the danger of basing housing decisions almost entirely on “biological sex,” with gender identity utilized to determine housing only “in rare cases.” APA highlighted that over-reliance on "biological sex" is problematic because it ignores the complexity of the medical spectrum of sex, including the natural variation in gender identity. APA also pointed out the common misconception that transgender individuals are likely to commit violent acts against cisgender individuals, when, in fact, transgender people are more likely to be targets of violence. APA urged the Federal Bureau of Prisons to revert to previous language in the manual, relying more on gender identity when making housing assignments. 

July 2018

APA advocates for international LGBT rights

APA sent letters of support (PDF, 190KB) to Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the lead sponsors of the International Human Rights Defense Act (H.R. 6033, S.3020). The bill would enforce the protection and advancement of human rights for LGBIT people internationally, and advocate against criminalization, discrimination, and violence against these populations. APA stressed that sexual and gender minorities around the world experience pervasive violence and discrimination, which is a violation of their human rights. Additionally, APA explained that exposure to discrimination, a chronic stressor, can harm physical and mental health.

March 2018

APA advises HHS that expanding conscience rights could lead to discrimination

APA submitted comments (PDF, 76KB) to the Department of Health and Human Services in response to a proposed rule that would enable providers to refuse to provide health care if they have a religious or moral objection to doing so. The comment acknowledged the importance of religious freedom, but argued that the proposed rule could increase discrimination against women seeking reproductive health care, sexual and gender minorities, and a variety of other groups. APA pointed out that our ethics code prohibits discrimination and that our guidelines for serving a diverse public assert that “psychologists need to interact beneficially and non-injuriously with all clients/patients who seek care. When such conflicts occur, the overriding consideration must always be the welfare the client/patient.” While APA recognizes the important role of faith-based health care providers, our ethical standards and principles are clear: the welfare of the patient must come first.

July 2017

APA Questions Announcement to Bar Transgender People From U.S. Military

The American Psychological Association released a July 26, 2017 statement questioning President Trump’s announced ban on transgender people serving “in any capacity” in the U.S. military, a reversal of the previous administration’s decision to allow transgender military personnel to serve openly. 

“We’ve seen no scientific evidence that allowing transgender people to serve in the armed forces has had an adverse impact on our military readiness or unit cohesion. Therefore, we ask that transgender individuals continue to be allowed to serve their country,” said APA President Antonio E. Puente, PhD. 

He cited research by Aaron Belkin, PhD, a leading scholar and director of the Palm Center, which has found no overall negative impact on military readiness or its component dimensions, including cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale. 

June 2017

APA Continues to Oppose Administration's Travel Ban

In a June 27 statement, APA reaffirmed its opposition to President Trump’s executive order banning travel to the United States by people from six majority-Muslim countries, but welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2017 clarification that the ban may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States. 

“The United States has historically served as a safe haven for the world’s refugees, like me,” said APA President Antonio E. Puente, PhD. “We must continue to develop ways to secure our borders from those very few who wish to harm us while welcoming others who seek refuge.” 

Refugees, particularly those displaced from war zones, experience stress, trauma and other serious mental health problems, Puente noted. 

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case this fall, but in the meantime overturned lower federal court rulings on Monday to let part of the ban go into effect. The ban suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days, reduces the number of refugees to be admitted in 2017 to 50,000, and bars entry for 90 days to individuals from six Muslim-majority countries.

June 2017

APA Supports Proposed Sexual and Gender Equality Legislation

On June 8, 2017, APA sent letters of support (PDF, 202KB) for S. 1006/ H.R. 2282, the Equality Act, introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representative David Cicilline (D- R.I.-1st District). The Equality Act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity at work, in housing, credit, education, retail services, jury service, and in programs and facilities that receive federal funding. APA emphasized discrimination remains common and can harm individual mental health and the public good. 

This legislation is in line with APA’s resolution on Opposing Discriminatory Legislation and Initiatives Aimed at Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Persons and policy statement on Transgender, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Non-Discrimination.

June 2017

In Letter to Booker, APA Continues to Oppose Juvenile Solitary Confinement

APA submitted June 8, 2017, letters of support (PDF, 81KB) for S. 329/H.R. 901, the Maintaining Dignity and Eliminating Unnecessary Restrictive Confinement of Youths (MERCY) Act of 2017, introduced by Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Representative Elijah Cummings, D-Md., 7th District. 

Juvenile solitary confinement is a practice in which juveniles are isolated in a cell, sometimes for days or even weeks. While solitary confinement is harmful to adult prisoners, it can have especially devastating consequences to youth whose developmental immaturity leaves them more vulnerable to adverse reactions to prolonged isolation. APA argued that solitary confinement should not be used as a means of discipline except in the most extreme, short-term cases. Rather, children and adolescents must have access to age-appropriate services and programming to prepare them to return to the community as healthy and productive young people.

April 2017

APA Urges House and Senate to Support Pay Equality

APA joined with partners on April 7, 2017 to send letters of support (PDF, 100KB) for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was re-introduced by Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on Equal Pay Day, April 4th. 

Women continue to be paid, on average, only 80 cents for every dollar paid to men, and the gap is even larger for women of color. The Paycheck Fairness Act updates and strengthens the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to ensure that it provides effective protection against sex-based pay discrimination and strengthens workplace protections for women.

March 2017

Registry Based upon Religion, Race or Nation of Origin Opposed by APA

The American Psychological Association sent a March 8, 2017, letter (PDF, 230KB) of support for the Protect American Families Act (S. 54) to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. In response to earlier discussion of a “Muslim registry,” the Protect American Families Act would prohibit the creation of an immigration-related registry program that classifies people on the basis of religion, race, age, gender, ethnicity, national origin, nationality, or citizenship. 

APA argued that whether intentional or not, creating a registry would express prejudice and discrimination that would be harmful to those targeted and to national security, contributing to stigmatization and potentially even radicalization. APA strongly supports legislation to prohibit such a registry.

February 2017

APA and Partners Defend Transgender Students’ Rights

APA joined 18 other national organizations — including the National Association of School Psychologists — in signing a Feb. 23, 2017 statement (PDF, 126KB) on the Trump Administration’s decision to rescind guidance on federal protections for transgender students. The statement notes that transgender students are more likely than their cisgender peers to face harassment and discrimination in school. Research has shown that this increases their risk for suicide, other self-harm, and drug use. Hence, federal policy explicitly clarifying protections is necessary to safeguard transgender students’ civil rights and well-being.

December 2016

Coalition Asks Trump Transition Team to Prioritize Children’s Mental Health

APA joined 23 other organizations in sending a Dec. 19, 2016, letter (PDF, 561KB) to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, urging the incoming administration to ensure effective treatment for childhood mental and behavioral health disorders. Enclosed with the letter were six principles for the transition team’s consideration:

  • Child and adolescent mental and behavioral health workforce
  • Insurance coverage and payment
  • Integration of mental and behavioral health into pediatric primary care
  • Early identification and intervention
  • Mental health parity
  • Juvenile justice reform
November 2016

Data Collection Will Help to Combat Disparities in Sexual Minorities, Says APA

In November, APA continued its long-standing advocacy efforts to address health disparities among sexual and gender minorities. 

With national partners, APA sent a letter in support of LGBTQ data collection in the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which currently does not collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity. The on Nov. 7, 2016, letter (PDF, 293KB) strongly encouraged the CDC to consider requiring collection of sexual orientation and gender identity data, which would document and potentially highlight any disparities or risks that have not yet been discovered or addressed. This data collection would expand CDC's ongoing commitment to addressing the risk factors for violence victimization as well as to the health of LGBTQ youth.

October 2016

APA Answers Call for Feedback on OMB Standards for Maintaining, Collecting and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity

APA sent a Oct. 31, 2016 response (PDF, 347KB) to a request for comment on the Review and Possible Limited Revision of OMB's Statistical Policy Directive on Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. These guidelines determine racial and ethnic classification categories used in all United States federal agencies. 

APA recommended separate questions versus a combined question to measure race and ethnicity; proposed the classification of a Middle Eastern and North African group as a distinct reporting category; and encouraged current federal efforts to improve understanding of minimum reporting categories.

October 2016

APA Submits Comments in Support of Executive Branch Rule on Family Planning

In October 2016, the Public Interest Directorate submitted comments (PDF, 132KB) on a proposed rule on the Title X Family Planning program that would ensure continued access to family planning funds by clinics that focus on reproductive health. The proposed rule was drafted in response to states that have recently passed laws to restrict distribution of Title X funds to programs that do not focus on reproductive health care. APA supports the proposed rule as it ensures continued access to clinics that primarily serve low-income and low-access populations.  

September 2016

Pay Equality Legislation, Reducing Race- and Gender-Based Discrimination, Supported by APA

In September 2016, APA joined with more than 40 other organizations (PDF, 267KB) to endorse the Pay Equity for All Act (H.R. 6030) introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC-At Large).This legislation aims to address the race- and gender-based pay gap in the United States by prohibiting employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their compensation history, including both salary and benefits. Access to compensation history means that employers can base salary decisions on prior earnings - which likely reflect wage discrimination, rather than the demands of the job or applicants’ qualifications. Hence, accessing compensation history may perpetuate the wage gap and contribute to economic disparities for women and individuals of color.

What other areas are there for social scientists to assist the civil rights movement? There are many…”
—Martin Luther King, Jr. , Speaking at the 1967 APA Convention

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APA represents the largest and most visible national presence advocating for psychology at the federal level. There are three APA government relations offices and two APA-affiliated organizations that engage in government relations activities. 

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