State of LGBTQ rights in America

Finn Witham, Reporter

In October, the Associated Press reported that Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sameul Alito released a letter calling for the Court to revisit the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, which was affirmed in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges. Later that month, conservative, Catholic Amy Coney Barret was appointed to the court. In 2015, Barret signed a letter to Synod Fathers affirming her personal view that marriage is between a man and a woman. These events have prompted concern among LGBTQ activists and people about the future of legal same-sex marriage. 

While that future is both important and in doubt, the fight for LGBTQ rights extends far beyond same-sex marriage. Due to the June Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, it is now illegal nationwide to discriminate against queer people in employment, meaning employers can no longer fire or choose not to hire people for their sexual orientation and gender identity. However, in many states, it is still legal to discriminate against queer people in housing, public accommodations, credit, juries, education and federal funding. This discrimination is happening: A 2016 survey among LGBTQ people, done by the Center for American Progress found that 25.2% had experienced discrimination in the past year. A majority of this group said that the discrimination caused harm to their psychological well-being and their work. 

 To remedy this, the Equality Act was first introduced in Congress in 2015. The bill would write sexual orientation and gender identity into the groups protected from discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 2019, the bill passed the Democratic House but failed to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate. Joe Biden, the President-Elect, has made the bill a first 100-day legislative priority. However, this may be unattainable if Republicans, who largely oppose the Equality Act, continue to control the Senate. Currently, 22 states and Washington DC have passed versions of the Equality Act, banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination within their boundaries. 

The Supreme Court decisions in Obergefell and Bostock, as well as state Equality Acts represented significant achievements for LGBTQ rights in the last decade. Yet, while these advances occurred, many protections for queer people instituted under the Obama Administration were rolled back by the Trump Administration. A report from the ACLU investigated these rule changes. It found that, in May 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services allowed faith-based medical providers to refuse specific services and information to people whose sexual orientation or gender identity violated the provider’s beliefs. HHS also changed rules to allow religious foster and adoption agencies to turn away prospective parents who were LGBTQ. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, also in May 2019, instituted a rule which allows federally-funded homeless shelters to turn away transgender and non-binary people. The Administration also banned transgender people from serving in the military and rescinded Department of Education rules allowing students to use bathrooms and other facilities conforming to their gender identity. 

In addition to these setbacks, 40 states still allow the use of the LGBTQ panic defense, in which a defendant in a criminal case can justify their violence (including murder) towards a victim because of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The LGBT Bar details that while the defense cannot be used to eliminate criminal liability, it can and has been used to reduce charges and support other defenses. Transgender and non-binary people also have limited or inhibited access to updating their identification documents to accurately reflect their gender identity and name changes, which can cause them to be denied housing, jobs, benefits, and even their right to vote. And beyond anti-discrimination protections, LGBTQ people face higher rates of suicide and mental health struggles, homelessness, violence (especially trans people and trans women of color), and criminal justice abuses (again especially towards trans people and trans women of color). 

The election of a new President represents a significant turning point for LGBTQ rights. In his platform, Joe Biden has pledged to reverse the Trump Administration’s LGBTQ rule changes, allow transgender and non-binary people to easily update their identification documents, work to improve LGBTQ healthcare, refocus HIV/AIDS policies around sound science, advocate for LGBTQ rights abroad, and work to reduce the homelessness, suicide, violence, abuse, and discrimination posed to queer people. Whether or not his Administration will be willing or able to carry these promises out remains to be seen. Regardless, the last decade saw enormous progress in granting rights, better representing, and protecting LGBTQ people, despite setbacks. While that struggle is far from over, victory has been pulled from the shadows and placed on a not so distant horizon.