The next fight for gay rights: Bias in jobs and housing

As they push for more state and local safeguards, rights advocates are also starting a long-term campaign for a broad federal shield that would give sexual orientation and gender identity protected status under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The goal is to achieve overlapping local, state and federal laws, an approach that has proved effective in curbing other kinds of discrimination, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. Visible laws can not only permit lawsuits, she said, but also deter employers and others from biased behavior.

Although a majority of states lack such protections, federal orders and court decisions, especially in employment, are gradually offering more safeguards.

With executive orders last year, President Obama barred discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal agencies and federal contractors, including companies employing about one in five American workers, Mr. Sears said.