Storm Clouds Are Gathering Over Pride Month
Public support for the LGBTQ+ community has grown steadily for decades. But some state legislators are pushing back against changing attitudes.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a leading advocacy group for the LGBTQ+ community, transformed the celebratory nature of this year's Pride Month by declaring a state of emergency. It marks the first time the organization has made such a warning in its 40-year history.
Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, says it’s especially important to remember that Pride Month has its origins in protests against discrimination and human rights violations.
“It has always been an act of defiance to gather together and to say we are not ashamed — in fact, we are happy, thriving people and a community of folks who will never go back.”
The historic declaration comes in response to an "unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping statehouses this year."
According to tracking by HRC, 315 anti-equality bills were proposed in 2022, 29 becoming law. Pro-equality bills were put forward in smaller numbers (156), but a greater share of them (23) were signed into law.
More than 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in 2023, a record, and almost 70 have already been enacted. Almost 150 have passed at least one chamber. This flurry of activity comes during a period of aggressive efforts to restrict reproductive rights and shows similar disconnect from predominant attitudes among the general public.
There is majority support for LBTQ non-discrimination laws in every state, Oakley says.
HRC polling finds that 6 in 10 Americans oppose bans on drag performances or bans of curriculum and books that address gender issues.
Oakley sees one big reason anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has been able to pick up steam: “State legislatures are so gerrymandered that folks only have to worry about their primary.”
Weaponized misinformation is another factor, especially in regard to transgender issues.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that sixth-tenths of 1 percent of Americans ages 13 and older identify as transgender, a racial and ethnic mix similar to the general population. Of that number, about 39 percent are transgender women (i.e., assigned male at birth) and 36 percent transgender men. About 1 in 4 are “gender nonconforming,” rejecting male and female stereotypes.
Of the 70 laws introduced in 2023 and enacted as of May, 15 banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth. So far, 20 states have banned or restricted such care, says Lindsey Dawson, director of LGBTQ+ health policy at Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). As the 2024 election cycle takes shape, she expects anti-LGBTQ+ efforts, particularly anti-trans health care, to be part of the political agenda.
As a consequence of divisive and misleading rhetoric, many interpret “gender-affirming care” to mean irreversible medical interventions, even surgery. Instead, it is a model that can include not only the opportunity to speak to a therapist, but things such as counseling regarding styling hair or clothing, or social interaction.
I think lots of folks will be too afraid to come out and be at Pride because they're afraid for their personal safety — that’s horrifying and deeply discouraging for our democracy.
- Cathryn Oakley, Human Rights Campaign
Rather, the gender-affirming care being denied to youth involves a range of evidence-based services, Dawson says, medical best practices endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, among others.
Stigma, self-consciousness and hostility are common coins of adolescence; transphobia only adds to the burden for young people struggling with gender identity. The adverse outcomes from denying access to care can be profound, says Dawson. “People are harmed.”
On June 6, a federal court judge blocked Florida from applying its gender-affirming care ban to three minors, saying they would “suffer irreparable harm” if this care was denied. He characterized the ban as political, and not a state interest. “Nothing could have motivated this remarkable intrusion into parental prerogatives other than opposition to transgender status itself,” he wrote.
Since 2009, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has undertaken research and survey projects to shed light on the interplay between culture, religion and policy. Acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community has risen dramatically in recent years as has consensus that discrimination is unacceptable, says PRRI’s CEO Melissa Deckman.
Over the years, PRRI’s surveys have revealed that attitudes regarding gender identity are still forming and in fluctuation. Among all Americans, support for bills that would require transgender people to use the bathroom of their sex at birth increased from 35 percent to 52 percent between 2016 and 2022. Attitudes vary greatly by party affiliation, however, with 74 percent of Republicans supporting such bills as compared to 31 percent of Democrats.
Similar partisan splits exist regarding gender identity and access to gender-affirming care. None of this amounts to a popular “mandate” to change policy in a specific direction, however. A recent Gallup poll found that an equal share of Americans (28 percent) identify with each party. Four in 10 say they are “independent,” a demographic that tends to have attitudes consistent with “all Americans” responses.
Partisan differences in attitudes regarding LGBTQ+ issues do not correlate with majorities on the left or the right. "Independent" voters may be the best gauge of consensus, based on their numbers.
Trans rights have become a fundraising tool and a wedge issue for interest groups. HRC’s Oakley notes that right-leaning organizations such as American College of Pediatricians and the Family Research Council (FRC) have been designated as anti-LGBTQ+ “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Both organizations reject this label. A statement published by the FRC challenging SPLC’s characterization of its work is unflinching about its stance, however: “… we believe sexual acts between persons of the same sex are objectively harmful to those who choose to engage in them and to society at large, in addition to being forbidden by Scripture.”
Some in politics are equally frank. North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, expected to campaign for governor in 2024, has said that acceptance of the LGBTQ community is turning the country into a “hellhole,” claiming that God “formed” him to fight this trend.
A Complicated Moment
This year, Pride Month comes at a time when there’s more support than ever for same-sex marriage, when LGBTQ+ identification is higher, when it’s commonplace for people from the community to be represented in the media, movies and books, Dawson observes. At the same time, the landscape is shifting to include more anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives, including in health care. “Both things are true, and it makes for a complicated moment,” she says.
It's also a painful moment, says Oakley. “I think lots of folks will be too afraid to come out and be at Pride because they're afraid for their personal safety — that’s horrifying and deeply discouraging for our democracy.”
HRC does sees progress as well as pushback. Michigan recently enacted comprehensive non-discrimination legislation, explicitly including civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. States are working to increase access to HIV prevention medication.
The tide could turn when the consequences of recent legislation begin to sink in, Oakley says. “Folks will understand that this was a giant policy mistake with completely atrocious results on human beings, and regret having lent their name to this effort.”
Even as Montana, Kansas and Tennessee now define “sex” in law as only male and female. LGBTQ+ advocates argue such laws deny nonbinary and transgender people legal recognition. Still, Oakley remains resolute, “They can't legislate us out of existence.”
Correction: The summary of this story was corrected to stipulate June is designated as Pride Month. (06.13.2023)