by Madelyn Gelpi
In many ways, Obergefell v. Hodges symbolized the changing face of the United States. LGBTQ activists and straight allies alike celebrated this landmark victory, an achievement that many hailed as the zenith of the LGBTQ movement, a culmination of years of hard work, and a representation of evolving ideas of family, individuality, and fairness.
The legalization of same-sex marriage set an important precedent in America. It legally recognized one of the central ideas of the gay rights movement—those who love persons of the same-sex deserve equal treatment under law. Knowing that there was still much to be done to fight anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the U.S., many LGBTQ activists were hopeful that the legitimization of same-sex couples through Obergefell v. Hodges would open new doors for the passage of other LGBTQ-related anti-discriminatory policies.
However, in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, deeply conservative religious communities felt the tug of this social change on the fabric of their own traditional framework and understanding of American values. Within a short period of time, LGBTQ communities faced a severe backlash from the religious right in ways never before seen. It quickly became apparent to many that, like many other civil rights movements in history, even with federal support of core aspects of the movement the fight for inclusion, acceptance, and equality was long from being over. The LGBTQ community, which rejoiced its victory in the Supreme Court in July 2015, continues to face a whole growing host of mounting challenges.
The coalescence of anti-LGBTQ groups has lead to an alarming rise in socially divisive and discriminatory policies against the queer community. Since January of 2016, over 175 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in states across the nation. The proposed bills have a variety of objectives. While many aim to deny transgender people equal access to sex segregated spaces, others intend to allow individuals to name religious beliefs as a legitimate reason for denying services like mental health care to LGBTQ citizens.
Unfortunately, this type of discrimination against the LGBTQ community is now codified into law in many states. Take for example Georgia’s SB 284, which explicitly prohibits
“Discriminatory action against a person who believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage.”
SB 284 and others like it set the dangerous precedent that religious belief warrants the permission to fundamentally reject certain populations from services, resources, and communities. The same reasoning that once was used at water fountains and diner counters is now being used in bathrooms and bakeries.
While several states have passed anti-LGBT bills, North Carolina has gained particular notoriety in its passage of HB2, a bill regarded by the American Civil Liberties Union as “the most extreme anti-LGBT measure in the country.”
HB2, or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, created a statewide definition of characteristics protected from discrimination. Sexual orientation and gender identity are two key elements missing from the list of protected characteristics, leaving LGBTQ individuals completely defenseless against discrimination in a variety of spaces and situations.
Of the 175+ bills introduced in 2016, 44 of these bills specifically target the transgender community. North Carolina’s HB2 is no exception. Under penalty of law, transgender individuals must use the bathroom of the gender marked on their birth certificates. Because many transgender individuals have been unable to change the gender identity marker on their birth certificates, many are legally obligated to use the bathroom of a gender that is not congruent with their identity. Even as North Carolina faces widespread condemnation as a result of the implementation of HB2, other states, like Kansas and Tennessee, have similar bills pending approval.
Source: Human Rights Campaign, Anti-Trans Issues Brief 2.29.16
In addition to these exclusionary policies, LGBTQ individuals face challenges that are unique and largely specific to this subpopulation. While many debate the existence of continued marginalization of people of color and women (in this case, cisgender females), few to none would deny the existence of these categories or argue that being in one of these categories is a personal choice. However, the same is not often true for LGBTQ individuals. In many conservative and liberal communities, ignorance or lack of exposure to the LGBTQ community leads many to misunderstand or deny the very existence of variation in sexual orientation or gender identity. Thus, these statuses are often conflated with perversion in certain communities, and largely misunderstood in most circles.
Further, this misunderstanding often exists within families, where LGBTQ people face the risk of family abandonment. This is an unusual circumstance when compared to the experiences of other minority identities. While it is common to find a family composed of a similar racial identity with both cisgender females and males (excluding in-law relationships and adopted family members), it is rare for families to be composed of individuals who have been marginalized along the lines of sexuality and gender identity. Thus, it is unlikely that family members would reject kin along the lines of race or status as a cisgender female.
To more clearly illustrate this concept, consider the following reasonable assumptions about a racial and cisgender female minority. For example, it is reasonable to say that a black cisgender female would not face familial rejection or abandonment as a result of her identity as a racial and cisgender female because it is highly likely that other family members also belong to one or both of these identity groups. Thus, it follows that families will not often abandon or disown other family members on the basis of these two identities, because to do so would be to ignore or reject their own membership to these groups.
As a result, there is a phenomenon of familial abandonment present in LGBTQ discrimination that is not reproduced at the same frequency in family dynamics around racial identity and cisgender female identity. This no doubt contributes to the disproportionate rate of homelessness, drug use, and mental health issues prevalent within LGBTQ communities.
As many academics and professionals in the mental health field argue, healthy family support is critical in determining one’s future success both on a professional and personal level. Functional families can provide children with crucial care in the form of emotional, financial, and material (clothing, housing, food) support.
Unstable familial relationships combined with discriminatory policies have disparately affected the LGBTQ community. In fact, compared to LGB youth with accepting families, LGB youth with hostile families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide. In addition, LGB youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than straight counterparts, and nearly half of transgender youth have seriously thought about taking their own lives.
In analyzing these two major obstacles, anti-LGBTQ policies and familial rejection, one can see that there is a larger element at play. Certain extreme religious values appear to fundamentally conflict with values of equality.
Perhaps the reason for this rests in the fact many Americans still do not accept or even understand LGBTQ individuals. Many opponents of equal rights policies fear for their own ability to live as free Americans with traditional religious values. This clashing of objectives, feelings, and values has led to bitter disputes, vehement rejection, and deep divides within American culture.
While policies can provide valuable protections for the LGBTQ community, they cannot solve these ideological disputes. Instead, education can be a more viable avenue to holistic understanding and acceptance and a possible solution to the battle between LGBTQ issues and religious ideology. Furthermore, embracing the values of empathy, patience, and curiosity can lead to better, more open conversations about beliefs and identities.
Hope and Progress
While the increasing prevalence of anti-LGBTQ measures is unsettling, we are starting to see signs of America’s ability to evolve and act against discrimination.
Earlier this week, the US Justice Department determined that North Carolina’s HB2 violates the Civil Rights Act. North Carolina state officials have until Monday to respond to this determination “by confirming that the State will not comply with or implement HB2.” If the state continues to implement HB2, it could risk losing billions of dollars in federal education funding.
In a historic move, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed an executive order last month protecting LGBTQ state workers and contractors from discrimination, effectively repealing a previous anti-LGBT executive order made by former Governor Bobby Jindal. Thanks to the hard work of Louisiana organizations like The Forum For Equality, we’re seeing a leap of progress in an area that is notorious for its resistance to pro-LGBTQ measures.
Other states are following a similar trajectory and working hard to repeal anti-LGBTQ legislation in their areas. Though there is much work to be done, progress continues to be made each and everyday. While it will take some time, with new policies, open conversations and minds, and education, the future of the LGBTQ movement is both bright and full of hope.
Madelyn Gelpi is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. Before coming to Goldman, Gelpi was a board member and community organizer for the Forum for Equality, Louisiana’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights organization.