Half of all Americans live in states that lack statutory protections for LGBTQ citizens, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The civil rights organization has just released its seventh annual State Equality Index (SEI), assessing state efforts to prevent LGBTQ discrimination.

HRC researchers tracked 379 pro-equality bills and 185 anti-LGBTQ bills during the 2020 legislative season, says attorney Sarah Warbelow, legal director for HRC. The highlight, she says was a bill passed in Virginia that made it the first state in the South to enact comprehensive protection for LGBTQ citizens against discrimination in housing, employment, public spaces and credit applications.

“Many states in the Old South did not take civil rights protections seriously,” says Warbelow. “This law really brought Virginia into the modern era.”

The Virginia Values Act may be the most sweeping civil rights bill ever passed in Virginia, says Senator Adam Ebbin, the sponsor of the legislation. “It encompasses an array of categories, not just sexual orientation and gender identity, but also things like national origin, race, gender, status as a veteran,” he says. “We did not have any public accommodations law prior to its passage.”

Among the 2020 bills HRC identified as “bad” are those that restrict the ability of transgender youth to access health-care services related to their decisions about sexual orientation, services that can include counseling as well as hormone blockers or other intervention. An Idaho bill bars residents from updating their gender marker on their birth certificate, says Warbelow, preventing them from having it reflect their sense of who they are and how they are living their lives.

New laws in the “good” category include those in New Jersey and Washington state that banned LGBTQ “panic” defenses and laws in five states that require questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to be included in efforts to collect COVID-19 demographic data.

The SEI uses a “scorecard” based on review of laws and policies in each state that affect the lives of LGBTQ citizens and their families to rank state progress toward non-discrimination. In the 2020 scorecard, 25 states are in its lowest category, “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality.”

Public Accommodations Laws

A number of states have yet to pass laws forbidding LGBTQ discrimintation in public accommodations. (Map: HRC)

Recent events have the potential to catalyze change. A 2020 Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County established that prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act apply to LGBTQ people. Building on this, President Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office stating that it is the policy of his administration “to fully enforce Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.”

While this is encouraging, says Warbelow, it’s not a given that states will follow suit. “We’ve often seen backlash to progress at the federal level,” she says. “During the Obama administration we saw some of that, certain state legislators who wanted to voice their disapproval and take it out on LGBTQ folks.”

The pandemic has increased the urgency for legislation that could help break down remaining barriers to equal access to housing, employment and health care for the LGBTQ community. A report published in late 2020 summarized responses from LGBTQ participants in a series of polls conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to determine the impact of COVID-19 on households in the U.S.

Two-thirds of LGBTQ households reported serious financial problems, as compared to 44 percent of non-LGBTQ households, with 64 percent experiencing employment loss, compared to 45 percent of non-LGBTQ households. Twice as many households (38 percent) had difficulty getting medical care for a serious health problem.

In addition to breaking down legislative efforts in 2020, the HRC report provides maps that show where states currently stand in regard to legislation in areas that include school bullying, hate crimes, conversion therapy, second parent adoption, transgender health care and data collection.

“We really hope that the State of Equality Index can be a resource for officials as they think about ways to improve the lives of LGBTQ people in their jurisdictions,” says HRC’s Warbelow.