Even a change for the better requires a bit of adjustment — including the great change in the nation’s leadership.
With Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president, LGBTQ+ political activists are operating in an atmosphere that’s far different from that of the Donald Trump-Mike Pence administration. The White House and federal agencies, once occupied by adversaries, are now full of allies, plus a goodly number of out LGBTQ+ folks. Activists are happy and relieved to have an administration that is so far keeping promises on equality and inclusion, but they’re aware that they’ll sometimes have to nudge it in the right direction.
“The change already is palpable,” says Julianna S. Gonen, policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. When Trump became president, LGBTQ+ advocates found themselves on the outside after having worked collaboratively with a welcoming administration led by President Barack Obama and Biden, his vice president.
“Thankfully, that is behind us now, and we have the opportunity to go back to a collaborative strategy,” Gonen says. “It feels good to have an administration in place that sees us, that values us.”
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, strikes a similar tone. “For the past four years we had a federal government that refused to acknowledge that LGBTQ people exist,” he says. Now the challenge is to ensure that Biden and Harris’s promises become reality, and “the administration has certainly taken significant steps,” David says.
Those include applying the Bostock v. Clayton County Supreme Court decision across all federal agencies. In that 2020 ruling, the court held that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is indeed sex discrimination and therefore outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On Biden’s first day in office, he issued an executive order directing all agencies to implement the ruling, meaning it will be applied not only to job discrimination but to housing discrimination and other areas, and the government will investigate and take action in cases of bias. For LGBTQ+ advocates, part of collaborating with the administration will be helping to shape what this implementation will look like, Gonen says.
“For the past four years we had a federal government that refused to acknowledge that LGBTQ+ people exist.” - Alphonso David
Applying the Bostock ruling throughout the government was one of the 85 steps HRC recommended to the Biden administration in its “Blueprint for Positive Change” issue brief. It also called for the lifting of Trump’s transgender military ban, which Biden has done, and to appoint members of the LGBTQ+ community to government posts. The administration has already appointed many, and more are expected to be named.
But numerous other actions are needed, advocates note, such as addressing violence against trans people, particularly women of color; assuring that government data collection efforts include information on sexual orientation and gender identity; ending restrictions on blood donation by gay and bisexual men; and passing the Equality Act, which remains pending in Congress at the time of publication.
The Equality Act, which is one of Biden’s priorities, would amend all federal antidiscrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity — essentially the same way the Biden administration is interpreting them now, in line with the Bostock decision. But if that’s written into law, it couldn’t just be undone by a future president.
It’s important as well that the administration address issues that aren’t specific to LGBTQ+ people but affect them deeply, says Cathy Renna, communications director at the National LGBTQ Task Force. These include racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, reproductive rights — something closely tied to sexual freedom — and many others, she says. Other activists likewise emphasize that LGBTQ+ folks need to be active concerning issues that affect everyone, such as health care, criminal justice reform, and more.
“I think we’ve already seen a vast improvement over what we’ve been dealing with for the last four years,” Renna says, adding, “There’s a tremendous amount of hope, but we’re also looking for more.” LGBTQ+ people have a voice in the Biden administration, and they must use it when allies aren’t doing enough, she says.
Other advocates generally concur. David says he doesn’t expect an adversarial relationship with the administration, but notes, “We will be as assertive as we need to be to advance LGBTQ rights. We are not interested in creating a hierarchy of priorities that pits us against other marginalized groups, but we won’t be left behind.”
“We do sometimes need to push our friends, but we have ways to do that,” Gonen says. For instance, with friendly officials in office, activists can speak to them in private rather than have public confrontations, she points out. Conveying a sense of urgency is important too, she adds, so that inclusive policies are enacted early and become the norm, making it less likely for an unfriendly administration to reverse them.
“We should not rest on our laurels. … Our advocacy is not going to stop,” David says. “Our job, our objective here, is to advance equality collaboratively.”