There’s no question that for LGBTQ Americans, 2016 increasingly became a year of trepidation and fear ― even of horror and grief.
All movements experience setbacks after huge wins. And a year like 2015, highlighted by marriage equality brought to the entire nation, was certainly one that would be met with fierce political backlash — and we saw that beginning to play out before the end of that historic year.
But what happened in 2016 represents a much more malevolent and sinister outcome of that backlash. We saw that the forces of hate we’d thought we’d beaten back can rise up in an instant. We saw that these forces could inspire a horrific mass shooting, or help to prop up a populist leader promising to “make America great again” — which, in the eyes of many of his followers, means a return to the days before LGBTQ people were out of the closet.
The election of Donald Trump ― coupled with the GOP’s control of both chambers of Congress ― threatens minorities, gender equality and the very stability of our democracy. And we see that even the gains or positive developments for LGBT rights that occurred this year — and in years past — can be swept away by the Trump administration and a Republican party that is drunk on power, at both the federal level and in the states. So much of what happened this year does in fact hinge on Trump ― and how we take on his administration and the GOP.
It’s a wake-up call for a new generation of queer people. This year will be remembered as one that challenged us all to use our collective power to beat back oppression, as we have in decades past. We know from our experience and our queer history that hate sometimes wins. And we know that we’re resilient and that we have no option but to fight it off. And we will.
The year’s impact on LGBTQ people began with the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in February. A force on the court for 30 years, Scalia was among the most homophobic justices to ever serve on the high court, blocking LGBT rights at every turn. He compared homosexuality to bestiality, incest and child pornography and believed that banning homosexuality was similar to banning murder. Scalia not only wrote a blistering, unhinged dissenting opinion in the historic marriage equality case in 2015, Orbergefell v. Hodges; he was virulently opposed to striking down sodomy laws, writing the dissenting opinion in the Lawrence v. Texas case in 2003, attacking the “law-profession culture” which he claimed had “signed on to the homosexual agenda.”
Scalia’s death was a shock to liberals and conservatives alike. Certainly his absence from the high court brought the belief that the grip the far right had on the court could be released indefinitely. The hope by progressives was that we’d secure protections on so many issues, from the environment to abortion — and LGBTQ rights.
But then the GOP-controlled Senate outrageously blocked President Obama from filling the vacancy, in a horrendous act of congressional overreach. Our only hope was for Hillary Clinton to win the election. But that didn’t happen. And now Trump is set to replace Scalia with someone “in the mold” of the late justice, as Trump described. And Trump may replace one or two other justices, dramatically altering the court and civil rights in ways that are unfathomable. The future of anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination, transgender equality, religious exemptions for those who discriminate and even marriage equality hangs in the balance.
North Carolina’s legislature held a special session in March to pass the infamous Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, otherwise known as HB2, which Republican governor Pat McCrory signed and which has been described as the most anti-LGBTQ bill in American history. The bill, Republicans said, was inspired by their anger at the city of Charlotte for passing a wide-reaching ordinance which included protections for transgender people in public accommodations, including rest rooms. But HB2 went much further than responding to Charlotte’s actions.
The bill rescinded not just all local LGBTQ ordinances in cities and localities across the state protecting LGBTQ people in housing and employment, but it prevented municipalities from deciding upon a local minimum wage, passing child labor ordinances, or passing laws protecting city workers. The most infamous part of the bill regulates which rest room transgender people may use in a public building, mandating that individuals only use restrooms and changing facilities that correspond to the how their gender is defined on their birth certificates.
It was heartening to see an uproar across the country, from leaders in other states, and among big business and prominent college sports programs. Businesses moved out of the state or canceled plans to relocate there, as the NBA, NCAA and other sports programs important to North Carolina’s economy and culture left the state throughout the spring and summer. And the action eventually cost McCrory re-election in November, when he lost by a slim margin to North Carolina’s Democratic state attorney general Roy Cooper even as Donald Trump took North Carolina with by a 3 point margin.
But by the end of the year, after the election, it seemed that advocates and supporters of LGBTQ rights began to cave to pressure. In December Charlotte rescinded its local ordinance in a deal that Roy Cooper and Democrats had negotiated to have HB2 repealed, a deal some LGBTQ activists opposed, saying that HB2’s repeal should not come at the cost of protections in Charlotte. But then the GOP outrageously didn’t even keep its end of the bargain. After calling a special session supposedly to repeal HB2, legislators ended the heated session with HB2 still in place, while Charlotte had rescinded protections, leaving LGBT North Carolinians in a more dire situation than ever.
The enemies of LGBTQ rights, looking at the success in rescinding Houston’s Human Rights Ordinance in 2015 and the passage of HB2, began pressuring Republicans across the country in state houses and at the federal level throughout 2016, pushing over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills ― including everything from marriage-related defense bills to first amendment defense acts to bathroom bills.
After his nomination was held up for eight months by Senate Republicans, Eric Fanning was confirmed as the first openly gay Army Secretary in May. It was an historic moment for President Obama’s powerful actions in advancing LGBTQ equality in the military, beginning with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in 2010.
As MSNBC reported last May, “A slate of senators from both parties joined in the praise for Fanning. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, tweeted that Fanning’s selection is ‘an historic moment for #LGBT servicemembers,’ while Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, tweeted that he ‘appreciated (Fanning’s) recognition of Alaska’s strategic importance & need for larger @USArmy.’”
But after serving less than a year, Fanning was set to be replaced by Trump with another billionaire among the billionaires and multimillionaires Trump chose as nominees for his cabinet. It wasn’t lost on activists that the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, which had condemned Fanning’s confirmation as a “cultural land mine” — and which endorsed Trump’s candidacy after he made promises to evangelical groups — is well represented among members of the Trump transition team, led by anti-LGBTQ Vice President-elect Mike Pence. It seemed to be another sign that Trump, even if he tried to present himself as more supportive of gays, knew to whom he had to give payback.
President Obama’s administration issued an historic directive on the treatment of transgender students, specifically describing how transgender students should be allowed to use the restroom and facilities that conform to their gender identity.
“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” John B. King Jr., the secretary of the Department of Education, said in a statement. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”
Predictably, the directive, issued in May, caused an uproar among anti-LGBTQ conservatives. Texas and a dozen other states filed a lawsuit against the administration, claiming it was an example of government overreach. In August, a federal district court judge in Texas put a temporary hold on the directive, a blow to the administration ― and to transgender students ― as the lawsuit proceeds.
Now, the directive faces opposition under a Trump administration. Trump’s choice for education secretary is Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, who has been a long-time opponent of LGBTQ rights and a contributor with her husband, Amway heir Richard DeVos Jr., of millions of dollars to groups like the National Organization for Marriage and Focus on the Family, which promotes “conversion therapy.” LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bullying programs pioneered by the Obama administration could be threatened, as could the transgender directive. And Vice-President Elect Mike Pence, during a campaign stop, promised that he and Trump would end the transgender directive, saying, “Washington has no business intruding on the operation of our local schools.”
Transgender rights headed to the Supreme Court in October when the high court decided to take the case involving Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old Virginia student who has been in a years-long battle with his high school over bathroom access, as he has been banned from using the boys’ rest room.
In April, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned a lower court ruling, ordering the school to allow Grimm access to the boys’ rest room. The school board appealed to the Supreme Court.
“I hope they say we don’t want to hear this case,” Grimm told The Huffington Post before the high court’s announcement. “I’ll be able to take a nice big deep breath and feel like I have my life – to some extent – back. It’s felt very much like it’s been put on hold for this case.”
But the high court not only took the case; it first stayed the appellate court decision pending its own decision to take the case. With a Supreme Court with only eight members, many are wondering about the court’s choice to take the case, and if it will wait until it has a ninth member before scheduling arguments. Whatever the outcome, many are hopeful that transgender youth are beginning to get the attention they rightly deserve. And though Grimm never sought the spotlight, he’s become a hero to many transgender youth, named this year to Time magazine’s list of 30 most influential teens in America.
In June, Pride Month, our souls were crushed when 49 people, most of them queer people of color, were brutally executed by a gunman filled with homophobic rage, who also wounded 53 people. The massacre at the LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando was the largest mass shooting in modern American history. We were numb trying to grapple with this hate crime, coming to terms with the reality of the danger we face every day. We think we’ve created safe spaces away from the homophobia and transphobia we face only to see those spaces violently invaded. More than that, we saw the indifference of Republican politicians who wouldn’t even mention that the victims were LGBTQ until pressured, and even Hollywood celebrities who refrained from offering support because it was perhaps too political.
We also witnessed the media, and Donald Trump, distorting the killer’s motivations and playing up the fact that the gunman was Muslim — and thus somehow connected to foreign terrorism, pitting queer people against Muslims — even though the assailant grew up in this country, on homophobia nurtured here, and had no actual ties to international terrorism. The tragic event underscored how much work we have to do in educating the public, as we also deal with the grief and the loss.
The Pentagon lifted its ban on transgender people serving openly in the military. It was a glorious moment last summer that came after years of pressure by transgender activists and allies, and four years after Congress repealed the ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving openly. (”Don’t ask, don’t tell” had been written into law by Congress, while the ban on transgender people serving openly was simply a Pentagon regulation that could be ended at any time by the executive branch.) It also was another measure of the enormous strides for LGBTQ rights under the Obama administration, and, in Obama’s second term, particularly for transgender Americans, a group that has been the most marginalized among LGBTQ people.
Again, however, there’s much trepidation about implementation and integration of the military — for all queer service members — as Trump’s National Security Advisor pick, Lt. General Michael Flynn, mocked transgender people in the military during his speech at the Republican convention. Trump’s Defense Secretary nominee, General James N. Mattis, has hinted at his own possible hostility, having written in a book that it’s dangerous when civilian leaders’ “progressive agenda” imposes “social change” on the military.
Much of President Obama’s and our hard-fought progress on LGBTQ rights was suddenly under threat in November, after Donald Trump won in a bitter, hate-filled election. There were many warnings about what he might do regarding LGBTQ rights― even as tried to present himself as more supportive of the community, including using the initialism “LGBTQ” at he Republican convention, in what many saw as an empty gesture ― and looking at his cabinet choices now, it’s a who’s who of enemies of queer people.
Some years are about learning lessons, and in 2016 we learned, in the most startling way, how fragile rights are. But there’s great hope for 2017 and beyond as we come together, now with so many more allies and resources, and approaching rights in an intersectional way. So many groups will feel the brunt of Trump’s brutality, and many LGBTQ people are members of several of those groups. Together we’re a powerful force.
We’ve always thrived and fought back fiercely when we’ve woken up to the stark reality of the oppression we still face. This moment will be no different.