For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, these are difficult times. At a time of historic visibility and symbolic victories like the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized equal marriage, the community has little time to celebrate its successes, because it now faces a determined and threatening backlash by the opponents of equality. The bigots are out there to fight, and they are well-armed.
Across America, discriminatory legislation is being advanced by those who want to deny an entire group of citizens equal rights simply because of who they love and who they are. To justify their crusade against equality, the proponents of such laws frame them as measures to promote religious freedom. The laws typically guarantee businesses, groups and individuals the right to refuse service to non-heterosexual Americans based on religious beliefs.
In Mississippi, a law passed on March 31 protects not only religious beliefs regarding homosexuality, but also about gender and premarital sexuality. In the state, businesses are now free to fire transgender employees, foster care families can send LGBT children into harmful conversion therapy and clerks can refuse to license same-sex marriages.
Can anyone sincerely believe that this is about religious freedom? It clearly is not. The term is being abused to conceal the real agenda behind such bills: they provide a license to discriminate at will. These laws mean that an entire class of people becomes fair game, exposed to harassment and humiliation without any protection by law. Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender citizens can now be turned away, fired and ostracized in the states that have passed these laws. Religious freedom means that you are free to practice your faith and believe in what you want to. But religious freedom cannot mean that you are free to infringe on the dignity and rights of others simply because you believe that your faith tells you to do so.
Supporters of these laws argue for conservative Christians (this is unsurprising – they never demand religious freedom for Sikhs, or Muslims, or any minority faiths). They portray Christians as the victims, an embattled minority. That is a ridiculous reversal of the real situation. The victimized, ostracized, banished group is the LGBT community. They are the the ones in need of legal protection, and not the bigots.
Besides the religious freedom legislation, there is another class of bills being proposed across the country. The rhetoric around them is even more vile. We’re talking about the so-called bathroom bills targeting transgender people. In North Carolina, a bill recently passed mandates that transgender students use bathrooms according to the gender on their birth certificate, rather the one that matches their identity. In over a dozen other states, similar laws are being passed. The argument put forward by supporters of these bills: accommodations for transgender people could be abused by sex predators. Allowing transgender individuals to use the restrooms of their choice would allow men into women’s facilities, they say. Last year, a Houston ballot initiative for anti-discrimination regulations was voted down because its opponents so successfully used that argument as a scare tactic.
The problem with the argument is simple: it is dishonest. Firstly, sex offenses are illegal and would remain illegal regardless of anti-discrimination ordinances. Anti-discrimination protect transgender people and not sex offenders. And there are no known instances where transgender people have assaulted others in restrooms. A public information officer with the Baltimore police even said that the notion that transgender protection laws enable “bathroom predators” was “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard”. Bathroom bills aim to solve a non-existing problem, and cause multiple real ones in the process. Such laws further poison an already hostile environment for trans people. Forty-one percent of trans Americans will try to take their lives at some point in their lives, nine times the suicide rate in the general population. They already face bigotry and harassment every day, and discriminatory legislation comes on top of that.
Offering some hope for this embattled minority, President Obama and his administration have put up an offense to anti-LGBT bills across the nation, threatening to withhold federal funding from states that fail to comply with federal anti-discrimination law. In addition, businesses and corporations from Deutsche Bank to PayPal have spoken out about the bills, with some even revoking planned expansions in states that passed such laws. And musicians and performers like Bruce Springsteen have canceled concerts in North Carolina, where a recently passed anti-LGBT bill sparked massive backlash.
On the other side of the political divide, however, the politics of hate are highly popular. The Republican Party is using bathroom bills and anti-LGBT rhetoric to turn out culturally conservative voters. This part of the voter base is energized and enraged by the cause, especially when it is framed as the defense of traditional family models or as protecting little girls from the crazy liberals who want to allow men in women’s bathrooms. The sad truth is that in 2016, bigotry can still be an effective political instrument.
Although the Republicans’ presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, has taken a rather relaxed stance on transgender rights, stating that they should be allowed to use a bathroom of their choice, the impression that President Trump would be sympathetic towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans Americans is sadly misguided. Trump later qualified his remarks on letting trans people use the bathrooms they choose, by adding that the decision should be left up to the states – which implies that his administration would not act on the onslaught of discriminatory bills in state legislatures. He has also come out as an opponent of marriage equality. If Mr. Trump goes on to win this election, grim times are ahead for millions of LGBT Americans.
The celebrations after last year’s marriage equality decision were justified, but this should not lead us into taking progress for granted. Those who oppose equality are not yet willing to concede this battle, and are determined in their efforts: in the first ten weeks of 2016, they introduced some 200 anti-LGBT bills in 34 states.
Those of us in this country who believe in justice, in equality and in human dignity for all need to be aware that the progress made can easily be taken away. Rights are important, but people who stand up for them matter even more. Especially in times like these.