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LGBTQ+ issues

LGBTQ rights are in peril—as Senate marriage equality mess reveals

The Daily Beast

September 17, 2022

The mess over marriage equality in the Senate, multiple anti-trans bills, and new “Don’t Say Gay” laws show how getting to “the right side of history” will take some serious work.

The news came as no surprise, more a sense of resigned confirmation. There will be no debate or vote on marriage equality in the Senate until after the midterm elections. Democrats accept that there aren’t yet the 10 Republican votes to get the vote over the line, but remain optimistic that there will be at some point.

Where this positivity comes from is a mystery. Some say that Republican senators wouldn’t want to vote for the bill before the elections, because a “no vote” would not fly with voters, the majority of whom support marriage equality. Republican senators will be more receptive after the midterm elections when they don’t have to show their right-wing credentials in tooth and claw.

Some Dems like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wanted the vote to happen, even if it did not succeed, so voters could see how Republican senators voted—and could then vote accordingly in the midterms having again, post-Roe, seen evidence of how out of step Republicans are with mainstream public opinion.

So, pick your narrative. And even if the vote does eventually pass (some think Republicans will sink it whatever happens in November), the fact that this is even an issue in 2022 is yet another depressing yardstick of where LGBTQ rights are in the country. Marriage equality was made the law in 2015, as a result of a decision taken by the Supreme Court. Now the concern is that the same court, packed with right-wing judges—one of whom, Clarence Thomas, has made it clear he is gunning for marriage equality next—may put the law in peril again. So, the idea is to pass marriage equality as federal law and make it untouchable.

This is where we have reached. We cannot trust the Supreme Court to uphold and respect a law of the land it itself enshrined, hence the need for, well, a new law. A significant piece of our civil rights jigsaw could be removed, and even Democrats who support it are terrified about how best to handle it—and this is a policy the public wholeheartedly supports. It isn’t just a mess, it’s a tragic, depressing mess. This should not be happening. The news stories about it are couched in the usual lingo of political horse-trading, rather than contemplating and analyzing what a huge failure of democracy it represents that marriage equality should have returned as a hot-button issue.

None of this, however, comes as any surprise to LGBTQ people who have watched, in the last few years, their rights come under sustained attack, first by the Trump administration and then by Republican-led state legislatures. Their immediate focus has been to pick on the most marginalized of the marginalized—trans youth—seeking to pass laws restricting their rights to gender-affirming healthcare, their ability to go to the bathroom at school, and their ability to play sports at school.

No matter the startlingly small numbers of trans youth in the states rabidly pursuing such hatred, no matter that they need help rather than state-sponsored persecution. The prohibition enshrined in law, and the cruelty that thrums alongside it, is the point.

Then, most famously in Florida, there have been the “Don’t Say Gay” bills—aimed at not just stopping discussion of LGBTQ issues and history in schools, but also stigmatizing LGBTQ lives and people, essentially hoping to scare and unsettle kids to go back into the closet, and who knows, try some conversion therapy. There have been the ongoing campaigns to ban LGBTQ-themed books from libraries, and the violent attempts to interfere with the smooth running of Drag Queen Story Hour events, and the hideous bomb threats to hospitals providing gender-affirming care to trans youth. The anti-LGBTQ extremists—legislators and private individuals alike—know no bounds in their efforts to cause harm.

In Republican-led states, there has been an attempt to not just discriminate against LGBTQ young people, but to invalidate them and who they love and how they wish to live in ever more vicious ways. One of the most heartening things has been to see young people themselves fight back. Even if a terrible law isn’t immediately changed, they have inspiringly shown they will not be victims.

However, none of this mitigates the parlous state of LGBTQ equality and rights in this country. These rights are under constant attack by a right-wing that does not just feverishly hate LGBTQ people but wishes to do them as much harm as possible, in not just state houses but the Supreme Court and in their day-to-day lives.

The calculated destruction of LGBTQ rights is being used as a trial balloon by Republicans to see just how far they can go in their efforts to introduce their brand of authoritarianism. And there has been no effective mass pushback against it—fine words, for sure, especially during Pride month. But generally those opposed to LGBTQ equality seem far more motivated in their destructive mission than those politicians who claim to cherish it.

There is a disconnect between how much Americans say they support LGBTQ equality, and many of their political representatives doing all they can to undermine it. The next challenge for LGBTQ organizations and their allies and supporters, and the Democratic Party if it is serious in its supportive intent, is to go beyond expressing shock and whining that Americans support LGBTQ rights every time an anti-LGBTQ bill is debated or passed. We know: Americans don’t support such bills, sure, got that thanks—but the bills are still being introduced and passed.

Those same organizations need to galvanize those Americans ticking the right box on surveys to make their support of LGBTQ people far more active—in mass lobbying of their public representatives, in demonstrations, and other activism. It is not enough to say the right thing about LGBTQ equality on paper; it is also not enough to present those statistics as a shield every time something terrible passes into law. Now is the time for action.

“The right side of history” is often invoked as a natural endpoint that means LGBTQ equality will ultimately be assured, whatever hideous bill is under discussion in whatever news cycle. It’s a misty, feel-good illusion, based on people kind of doing the right thing, and kind of voting the right way, and everyone kind of coming to an understanding that justice and equality are good things. Kind of. Eventually.

But “the right side of history” has never been a natural progression point for LGBTQ rights. Yes, there has been progress, but for all the many steps forward, there have been many steps back—and in recent years the steps back have been immense, and they have been bolstered by a gale of ugly anti-LGBTQ bigotry online.

Activists and politicians need to stop crowing about sympathetic public surveys. Republican politicians, and bigots generating clicks and hate, don’t give a damn about them. Everyone needs to stop saying, “We are on the right side of history.” It sounds smug, self-complacent and means nothing, until you galvanize a far greater critical mass of public support to actively campaign and vote for America to get there.

Until then, all the hoping and wishing that politicians and voters will do the right thing and that we’ll almost by happy coincidence end up on “the right side of history” will count for nothing. The mess over marriage equality in the Senate isn’t an administrative blip. It isn’t a great tactical maneuver. The fact that we are debating and worrying about it seven years after we thought it was won is a stubbornly persistent and sad symbol of where LGBTQ rights have reached in this country. Only intense campaigning and public engagement will resolve this, and, if successful, finally put us on a surer, more purposeful footing to “the right side of history.”