The LGBTQ rights movement has seen major gains over the past several years, but the future of equality in America seems stuck at a crossroads.
On one hand, the Supreme Court upheld same-sex couples' right to marry nationwide. Transgender people and their issues are finally getting national attention with Caitlyn Jenner coming out and growing media attention from shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. And the super-conservative Utah passed a nondiscrimination law protecting LGBTQ people in the workplace and housing.
On the other hand, there have been some bad losses for the LGBTQ movement. In November, Houston failed to keep its nondiscrimination law on the books after a campaign focused on transgender people in bathrooms. In March, North Carolina passed a sweeping law that prohibits nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people and bans trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity in schools and government buildings. Several states have considered similar anti-trans bathroom bills. More states have considered religious freedom bills in clear attempts to allow discrimination against LGBTQ people.
So it's a mixed story, even as the movement seems to be winning overall. For LGBTQ rights organizations, this messy environment poses the questions: What's next? And how are LGBTQ groups going to win these next few fights in the US?
I reached out to six big LGBTQ organizations to answer these and other questions: the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), the Equality Federation, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). These are by no means the only groups fighting for LGBTQ rights in America, but together they gave a good idea of what's next in the battle for equality.
What big issues will the LGBTQ movement need to focus on in the next few years?
Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation: "In the 32 states right now that don't have comprehensive nondiscrimination protections, there's an ongoing need to move toward getting those protections. There's three different approaches: local and state policy changes, federal protections, and litigation."
Chad Griffin, president of HRC: "In a post-marriage world, when marriage equality has been brought to all 50 states in the country, the most outrageous situation has been created: Someone can get married at 10 am and on the same day [be] at risk of being fired from their job by noon and evicted from their home by 2, all because we have no explicit federal nondiscrimination protections. Our civil rights laws currently protect folks based on a whole host of categories, including race, religion, and national origin. But not gender identity and sexual orientation."
James Esseks, director of LGBTQ issues at the ACLU: "There are two big pushbacks coming from opponents of LGBT equality: One of them is religious exemption measures. Another is anti-trans restroom-focused bills that we're seeing in state legislatures, and that's part of what passed in North Carolina. But both religious exemption bills and these anti-trans bills come from the same place: At their core, they're about authorizing discrimination against LGBT people."
What other LGBTQ issues also deserve more attention?
Kate Kendell, executive director of NCLR: "There remains a whole range of work to be done specifically. But it's all in service of one overarching goal: … for LGBT people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, to live with full dignity in civil society, free from stigma and discrimination based on who we are.
"Freedom from harassment on the streets. Transgender issues, particularly violence against transgender women of color. Rejection from families based on our sexual orientation or our gender identity. Access to health care. Care that takes into account of gender identity or sexual orientation in prison settings, jail settings, and youth homes."
Mara Keisling, executive director of the NCTE: "We've never as an LGBT movement or trans movement focused on economics. We've been very good with de jure discrimination. But we need a lot of help with de facto discrimination. We need to get people jobs."
"We need to stop all the murders. That's obviously just not about bigotry; it's also about economics and what kind of people are targeted for violence. You're more likely if you're a low-income person, a person of color, a sex worker, an immigrant, or a trans person. And if you're all of those things, you're very susceptible to violence.
"We won't have an effective or moral LGBT movement unless we understand that it has to be an anti-poverty movement, an anti-racism movement, a disability rights movement, a pro-woman movement, a pro-worker movement, a pro-immigrant movement. Because that's some of the discrimination people face first."
Chad Griffin, president of HRC: "HIV and AIDS is also something that continues to be a top priority. It's something that we've made a priority here. As medical science has progressed, public knowledge hasn't necessarily kept up with that, nor has the knowledge within the medical community. We see, in terms of our work throughout the South, surveys that show a shocking and, quite frankly, devastating number of doctors, medical providers who are unaware of what they should be talking to their patients about — [patients] who either have HIV or are at risk of HIV."
Janson Wu, executive director of GLAD: "The US is still locking up undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, particularly trans women, in detention facilities in which they face conditions that are fundamentally unsafe for them, where they face disproportionate violence and sexual assault — to the point that the UN has called the detention of these individuals the equivalent of torture.
"There's something going fundamentally wrong when 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ — in particular, youth of color. And that certainly deserves greater attention.
"We need to really continue to raise the standard higher and higher. … The example I like to use is around school climate: We've done an incredible amount of important work around bullying in schools. … But that should be the bare minimum. What if we worked for an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in history classes, so that all students — not just LGBTQ students — learn about the contributions that LGBTQ individuals have made throughout the history of the United States and the world?"
How can the LGBTQ movement defeat the bathroom myth, the idea that some men take advantage of nondiscrimination laws for gender identity to pose as women in bathrooms and sexually harass or assault women?
Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation: "Humanizing [trans people] is a critical part of this piece. … When you meet people who are comfortable in their identity and live their identity, it just becomes clear that these fears are unwarranted."
Janson Wu, executive director of GLAD: "Around the marriage issue, so many people had these false ideas of gay men as single sexual predators who were dangerous — really similar to the ways many people think of trans people. But once we were able to show that they are brothers, sisters, parents, children, and that they work in the community and volunteer in their churches and community groups, and put them in the context of their lives, it was really critical to advancing the equal humanity and dignity of all people, particularly LGBTQ people."
James Esseks, director of LGBTQ issues at the ACLU: "The proponents of this [bathroom] bill in North Carolina couldn't point to one situation where there has been the kind of sexual assault problem that they're saying they need to stop. There are 19 states that have gender identity nondiscrimination provisions in their state laws. There are 200-plus cities that have gender identity nondiscrimination provisions in their city laws. With all of those people — millions of people — covered by those laws, there's no stories of transgender people attacking people in the restroom. It doesn't happen."
Chad Griffin, president of HRC: "Whether you're a Democratic governor or a Republican governor, virtually without exception, goal No. 1 is to keep jobs in your state and to attract new jobs that you don't currently have. That is one thing that is shared between conservative governors, liberal governors, moderate governors. … So the increase in business [engagement and lobbying against these laws] has been key to our success, and I think it will be key to our success as we engage in these battles in the future."
Why is it important for LGB people to stick together with trans people?
Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation: "If you think about traditional male and female presentation, the LGB movement was always a challenge to that — and it always had to do with gender nonconforming through butch women and effeminate men. So it was already about challenging to gender norms, even within just LGB."
Mara Keisling, executive director of the NCTE: "There's always been an understanding that we're all just breaking the gender rules. Possibly the biggest rule of those is that you can't have sex with someone of the same sex. But there's a lot of parts to it about clothing, behavior, and how someone carries themselves in the world. We really are the same people in so many cultural, historic, and political ways."
Janson Wu, executive director of GLAD: "When I was growing up and my parents worried that I was gay, my father would often criticize me for wearing my hair too long, for walking too effeminately, and for not playing sports. That was the way he understood what being gay meant. So from my own personal experience, it is impossible to separate the ways people view sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. That's why it is critical for all of the letters to be successful."
James Esseks, director of LGBTQ issues at the ACLU: "If we don't get protection against gender identity discrimination and gender expression discrimination, there's a whole lot of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who won't have the protection that we need. Because employers are going to come back and say, 'Oh, no, we didn't fire her because she's a lesbian. We don't know what she does at home in her bedroom. We fired her because she's too butch.' So if gender expression and gender identity aren't part of the protections, the protections don't cover a lot of the community."