Yes, we’re in an LGBTQ state of emergency
By Charles M. Blow
This year there is a pall over Pride.
As the LGBTQ community celebrates Pride Month, we are besieged by a malicious, coordinated legislative attack.
There’s been a notable rise in the number of anti-LGBTQ bills since 2018, and that number has recently accelerated, with the 2023 state legislative year being the worst on record.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2023 there have been more than 525 such bills introduced in 41 states, with more than 75 bills signed into law as of June 5. In Florida — the state that became known for its “Don’t Say Gay” law — just last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that banned gender transition care for minors and prohibited public school employees from asking children their preferred pronouns.
As Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, recently told me, the number of signed bills is likely to move higher: “There’s 12 more that are sitting on governors’ desks, so you could be at nearly 100 new restrictions on the LGBTQ+ community by the end of this cycle.”
For that reason, on Tuesday, for the first time in its more than 40-year history, the Human Rights Campaign declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people in the United States.
I recently spoke with several leaders of LGBTQ groups and historians who have documented the community’s history, and they all raised the alarm about the severity of what we’re seeing.
There have been other periods of backlash against the queer community, including with the passage of oppressive legislation, but this one has moved with alarming political calculation and efficacy.
“This is a terror campaign against our community,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of GLAAD, the preeminent LGBTQ media advocacy organization.
The way this kind of terrorism works is that it not only punishes expression, condemns identities and cuts off avenues for receiving care but also creates an aura of hostility and issues grievous threats. It’s like burning a cross on someone’s lawn: It’s an attempt to frighten people into compliance and submission.
The Republican politicians pushing anti-LGBTQ laws usually pretend that their principal, if not their sole, motivation is to protect children. But these laws operate in furtherance and protection of the fragile patriarchy, in perpetuation of the twin evils of homophobia and heterosexism and in reinforcement of abusive gender-identity policing.
These politicians play to a segment of the population that sees any divergence from its primitive ideals as deviant. So they build boxes. But for too many people, particularly young people, those boxes can become caskets: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 gay, lesbian or bisexual high school students attempted suicide in the past year. Last year the Trevor Project found that 45% of LGBTQ youths seriously considered attempting suicide in the preceding year.
These politicians have Willie Horton-ized the transgender equality movement and, by extension, the whole movement for LGBTQ equality.
And one of the saddest aspects of this episode has been seeing a small but vocal group of people who claim to be liberal — and who one would think would be allies — aid and abet the arguments of transphobes.
Some are feminists who have essentially argued that full inclusion of trans women is anti-feminist — that it’s harmful to or an assault on the rights of cisgender women.
And there have been some in the queer community who have remained shockingly silent when it comes to trans rights, treating the issue as zero sum. Rather than express solidarity with the trans community, they see the fight for trans rights as an opening for homophobes to erase the hard-earned gains of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals. This is not a hill they chose to die on.
But if you are queer and silent on this issue, you are betraying your own cause. Silence won’t shield you. It will only embolden your adversaries and expose your cowardice.
It seems pretty obvious that the trans community is an attractive target for culture war bullies because it’s a small subset of the queer community and an even smaller subset of society as a whole.
According to a study last year by the Williams Institute at UCLA, about 1.6 million people 13 or older in the United States, or 0.6%, identify as transgender.
Furthermore, in a 2021 survey, nearly 70% of Americans said they know a gay or lesbian person. Only about 1 in 5 said they know someone who is trans. That number is up but still small. That’s about the same number who said in response to a 2021 YouGov poll that they’ve seen a ghost.
It’s in this atmosphere of unfamiliarity and ignorance about who trans people are — and are not — that hysteria and cruelty flourish. The maleficent caricature that people conjure in their minds about trans people is one of a predator or “groomer” lurking in bathrooms and locker rooms. They imagine a Frankenstein’s monster in lipstick to justify their pitchforks.
The advocates I spoke to were, in a way, reeling from this onslaught but also optimistic that they would eventually prevail and that this backlash would wane.
The problem, though, is that once laws are on the books, it can be hard to remove them. Take, for example, HIV criminalization laws and laws against same-sex marriage that still have not been repealed in some states.
As Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor and the author of “A Queer History of the United States,” put it, “I can argue all I want that this is a draconian backlash that’s not constitutional, but the laws are on the books already.” He added, “I think it’ll be decades to take them off the books.”
That could mean a near future of further bifurcation of the country — some states rushing to oppress the LGBTQ community, with others winding up as places to go to try to escape oppression — not unlike the country’s bifurcation in the Jim Crow era. In fact, you could call this era the birth of Jim Queer.