Does 2023 Bring the Great Pushback Against LGBTQ+ Rights?
Finbarr Toesland READ TIME: 8 MIN.
In just 20 years, LGBTQ rights have drastically improved across the United States. Thanks to decades of struggle from activists fighting to be treated equally, the legal protections enjoyed by LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. are some of the best in the world.
From the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas ruling that state laws banning same-sex sexual activity are unconstitutional and the legalization of marriage equality in 2015 to U.S. passports holders being given the option to select the gender marker of X last year, many legal advances have been achieved.
Yet, these breakthroughs haven't come without a backlash. According to recent research from the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU), 482 bills, and counting, have been introduced by politicians that seek to restrict LGBTQ+ rights, especially around issues of freedom of expression, access to healthcare, and non-discrimination laws.
Another concerning development for hard-fought rights, namely marriage equality, was the move by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. Writing in his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said, "in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court's substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell," the latter being in reference to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that state bans on marriage equality were unconstitutional.
For Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of the leading LGBTQ+ advocacy group for students, GLSEN, incredible strides may have been made around non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people. But this progress and increasing visibility for the community has sparked a backlash from conservative activists across the country.
"These anti-LGBTQ+, white supremacist extremists are doubling down on attacks against LGBTQ+ young people, especially transgender youth and LGBTQ+ people of color," they say. "Extremists are using LGBTQ+ youth as political pawns to try to further their own agenda to roll back the clock on equal rights and gain more political control over our communities."
According to analysis from NBC News of data from the ACLU, a great deal of the current backlash to LGBTQ+ rights is specifically targeted towards trans rights. Their report finds that while just 22 anti-trans bills were proposed in 2019, this figure increased to 153 in 2020 and 191 in 2021.
The renewed efforts by many Republican politicians, right-wing activists and religious organizations to place LGBTQ+ rights on the legislative agenda comes at a time when Americans say they are the most supportive of LGBTQ+ rights than ever before. For example, a poll conducted by Gallup in 2021 found a record high 71% of Americans support marriage equality, with even a majority (55%) of Republicans believing that same-sex marriage should be recognized.
While statistics such as this seemingly indicate that the battle for a range of LGBTQ+ rights is over, with a solid majority of Americans holding pro-LGBTQ+ opinions, a relatively small minority of people remain committed to fighting against supportive laws and policies.
Some LGBTQ+ advocates, such as Brandon Wolf, press secretary at Equality Florida, argue that the four years of a Trump Administration that trafficked in unbridled anti-LGBTQ+ animus has emboldened anti-LGBTQ+ activists.
"Those who are working to unravel civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ people are simply saying the quiet part out loud again, peddling bigoted policy cloaked in misleading language, and reviving dangerous tropes in service to their anti-LGBTQ+ agenda and the politicians who've signed onto it," says Wolf.
Promoters of bills and policies that would roll back or stop the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights typically use reasons such as religious freedom or parental rights to justify many pieces of legislation. In practice, however, efforts made to stop anti-discrimination laws or create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students can have a tangibly negative impact on their daily lives.
For example, the lack of a nationwide ban on defendants using the so-called "gay panic defense" means that it is still possible for lawyers in dozens of states to deploy this tactic. In addition, the absence of a federal ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in public accommodations, including shops and restaurants, leaves LGBTQ+ citizens open to discrimination when doing something as mundane as buying groceries.
One of the most feasible explanations behind the upsurge in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment from leading political figures on the right, and the subsequent introduction of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ communities, is the need to appeal to their political base.
"Republicans fear being challenged from the right, and these extreme positions allow them to present themselves as staunch conservatives," explains Gabriele Magni, assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University and director of the LGBTQ Politics Research Initiative.
"They are not talking to the average American who is supportive of LGBTQ rights. They are not even talking to the average Republican. They are talking to the most conservative base, which is often still against LGBTQ rights and crucial to win Republican primaries," he says.
Instead of being driven by genuine demands by constituents, opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, in the view of Magni, comes directly from special interest groups that have prioritized anti-LGBTQ initiatives. "This is an elite-led strategy, organized by the religious right, conservative groups, and Republican politicians," he adds.
Wolf agrees that vehement opponents to equality have long sought to use members of the LGBTQ+ community as scapegoats for their efforts to roll back progress. "Those anti-equality forces have met willing hosts in cynical politicians like Governor DeSantis who are desperately scrounging for a way to build their right wing bonafides," says Wolf.
In response to the growing number of threats facing the LGBTQ+ community from rising extremism and anti-LGBTQ+ bills, national human rights organizations and activists are working on a range of avenues to protect the most marginalized. Both on the grassroots and national level, LGBTQ+ advocates are doubling down on initiatives and programs aimed at empowering vulnerable members of the community and combating discriminatory bills.
"We must work tirelessly to challenge them in the courts, fight to repeal them in the legislature, and hold lawmakers accountable for the votes they took knowing the damage they were causing. We need to get essential resources to those being denied them and support organizations doing work for those directly impacted," says Wolf.
Organizations like PFLAG National, a group dedicated to supporting and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and their families, have seen strong responses from their members as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, especially around trans issues, is introduced.
Planning educational events and community or workplace forums to reach people who may not be familiar with the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people and families is, according to Diego M. Sanchez, Director of Advocacy, Policy and Partnerships at PFLAG National. a powerful way to engage non-LGBTQ+ people in the current dialogue around LGBTQ+ rights.
"We hear more and more from PFLAG chapters how they've worked to organize LGBTQ+ people and their families to take action and rise up in support of the LGBTQ+ community," says Sanchez.
Anti-trans bills have proven to be one of the most successful types of legislation promoted by Republican politicians. From stopping younger trans students from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity to restricting access to gender-affirming medical care, trans people have faced a particularly high number of bills targeting their rights.
From Texas to Florida and Alabama, a backlash can be seen relating to the increasing visibility of trans students. The Texas Department of Family Protection Service has been directed to investigate the families of trans children who have received gender-confirming medical care. While these investigations are now under injunction due to litigation, a final decision in whether or not these investigations can continue is pending.
In Florida, Governor DeSantis banned discussion or teaching of LGBTQ+ topics or people under the so-called 'Don't Say Gay' law. "While the law is currently being litigated, the law has given permission to bad actors to harm or threaten harm against affirming educators, administrators and staff, as well as families and especially LGBTQ+ students," says Sanchez.
Due to his experience, Sanchez say he clearly recognizes that these harmful actions are funded by and connected to the same forces acting to restrict access to abortion, to the ballot, and to inclusive education. "PFLAGers and others throughout the LGBTQ+ community recognize that efforts like so-called 'parent protection' acts, censorship and medical bans harm mostly trans and nonbinary children and their families," Sanchez adds.
For Sanchez, the first step to addressing the root causes of the backlash against LGBTQ+ rights is to call them what they are: Heavily funded, locally directed, power-driven attempts by some lawmakers to seize power by dividing our communities. "They do this by exploiting lack of understanding about transgender people for some efforts, exploiting deeply misogynist beliefs in others, and leaning hard into deeply-held racism for still other divisive actions," concludes Sanchez.
Finbarr Toesland is an award-winning journalist who is committed to illuminating vital LGBTQ+ stories and underreported issues. His journalism has been published by NBC News, BBC, Reuters, VICE, HuffPost, and The Telegraph.