The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organisation, declared 2021 the “worst year” in modern U.S. history for LGBTQ rights, citing a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures across the country. According to the group, the amount has nearly doubled this year.
However, as the year 2022 comes to a close, advocates say this wave of legislation is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of the onslaught faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans.
They say they have watched in horror as homophobic and transphobic slurs have become commonplace in political discourse, and threats of violence against the community have become the norm.
“Right now, the LGBTQ+ community is under siege,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas. “We’re seeing layered attacks that are very different from what we’ve seen in the past.”
‘It was no longer safe for me.’
Early on, 2022 was a difficult year for LGBTQ rights. According to the HRC, the number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in the first three months has already surpassed the historic tally of 191 such bills introduced in 2021. According to the group, more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year.
The vast majority of these bills were introduced by Republican lawmakers, though the majority of them died in committee. Approximately half of the proposed bills, and the majority of those that have been enacted, specifically affect transgender Americans. The policies that prohibit trans girls and women from participating on women’s sports teams have been the most successful. According to the Movement Advancement Project, which has been tracking the bills, 18 states currently have such sports laws.
Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, was one bill that was successfully implemented and garnered national attention for months. The contentious legislation prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
The measure’s supporters have repeatedly stated that it is about giving parents more control over their young children’s education. However, critics and legal experts have expressed concern that the law’s broad language could expose school districts and teachers to unnecessary lawsuits.
To ensure compliance with the state, some public school districts have implemented broad policies that go beyond the scope of the law. Representatives of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, for example, accused school officials in June of verbally warning educators not to wear rainbow clothing and to remove pictures of their same-sex spouses from their desks, as well as LGBTQ safe space stickers from classroom doors. In a statement provided to the teachers’ union, the district’s legal department confirmed that staff members who come into contact with students in kindergarten through third grade were warned about LGBTQ issues.
Some LGBTQ teachers in the state’s public school system were even forced to resign as a result of the law.
Lesbian Nicolette Solomon taught fourth grade in Miami-Dade County for more than four years before retiring in February. She is still in education, working as an operations specialist for an education software company, but she misses working directly with students.
“It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life,” Solomon, 28, said of her decision to leave her teaching position. “I was that safe person for them, and I had to leave because it wasn’t safe for me to be in that school and teaching in Florida any longer.”
Among the bills aimed at the LGBTQ community this year are proposals to limit gender-affirming care for transgender minors. These kinds of laws would make it illegal for transgender youth to receive puberty blockers, hormone therapy, or transition-related surgeries.
Such measures, proponents argue, would protect children from regretting transition-related treatments later in life. Opponents argue that limiting such access to care will exacerbate the already staggering rates of mental health issues afflicting trans youth, including disproportionate rates of suicide attempts.
The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have all endorsed such treatment for transgender minors, with the AMA and APA calling it “medically necessary.”
In four states, laws restricting gender-affirming care have been enacted: Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. However, judges in Alabama and Arkansas have temporarily blocked the implementation of those states’ laws while legal challenges to the laws continue.
After the state Legislature failed to pass a bill restricting gender-affirming care last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made history this year by imposing the restrictions through state agencies. In February, he directed Texans to notify state authorities if the parents of transgender minors appeared to be receiving gender-affirming medical care. Abbott’s order came just days after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion deeming the treatment to be child abuse under state law.
Some transgender families in Texas say the directives have prompted them to flee the state.
“I know six, seven generation Texans who have left Texas and all of their families for their children’s safety,” Martinez said. “This year’s holidays are going to look very different, and that’s just sad.”
Many of those without the means to flee have devised contingency plans to avoid prosecution, according to Martinez, who added that some parents have begun homeschooling their children.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say terror,” Martinez said. “Parents are experiencing elevated levels of anxiety, having to constantly look over their shoulders about who they can and cannot trust.”
Texas’ novel approach to restricting gender-affirming care was replicated in Florida, with the Sunshine State’s official medical board voting in October to prohibit such care for minors. However, it is unclear when the measure will go into effect.
A ‘dangerous’ increase
With so much at stake for queer Americans, the LGBTQ policy debate heated up this year.
Many right-wing lawmakers, media personalities, and activists, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and Georgia Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, have accused LGBTQ people and Democrats of “grooming,” “indoctrinating,” and “sexualizing” children for months. The term “grooming” has long been associated with portraying LGBTQ people as child sex abusers, particularly gay men and transgender women.
According to Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, “grooming” was mentioned nearly 8,000 times on Twitter the day after Republican DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, compared to just 40 times on the first day of this year.
“The level of how heated the rhetoric is — and how incendiary it is — is something I had never seen outside of extremist forums, and it’s now become almost mainstream on social media,” Caraballo said. “I just never imagined it would get to this point.”
For months, LGBTQ advocates, including Caraballo, have been sounding the alarm, warning that this type of language could lead to real-world threats and attacks.
Greene’s spokesman, Nick Dyer, called the accusations “defamatory” when asked to comment on advocates’ claims that Rep. Greene’s rhetoric has contributed to violence and threats against LGBTQ Americans.
A spokesperson for Gov. DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment on the advocates’ claims.
Carlson mocked the Biden administration for hosting drag artist Marti G. Cummings at the White House to celebrate the passage of a same-sex marriage bill in a segment on his show last week. Carlson used several old tweets from Cummings out of context to claim that Cummings and other drag performers are “creepy with kids.”
Cummings, who uses they and them pronouns, said they received online messages calling them a “groomer,” “pedo,” and “pervert” in the days following the segment, as well as several graphic death threats. One social media user sent a direct message to Cummings that included a photograph of a hanging noose and wrote, “This is your future,” according to a screenshot Cummings shared with NBC News.
“As somebody who was a victim of child molestation, to hear somebody say, ‘Oh, you’re a groomer,’ it brings up trauma. “It’s disgusting; it’s dangerous for them to say these things,” Cummings said. “Pundits on networks such as Fox are using these talking points to boost ratings… They’re using it to frighten their audience.”
A Fox News representative did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Carlson’s segment slamming Cummings and other prominent LGBTQ figures aired several hours after a hearing on “The Rise of Anti-LGBTQI+ Extremism and Violence in the United States” was held by the House Oversight Committee. Survivors of the November 19 mass shooting at a Colorado gay bar blamed the attack on “hateful rhetoric” and baseless accusations from elected officials and activists during the hearing.
The shooting, according to Caraballo, was “almost predictable.”
“I had a bit of a breakdown after Club Q,” Caraballo admitted. “Earlier this year, I went on record saying that this is where this rhetoric will lead… “I would have loved to be wrong.”
According to a recent report by the Crowd Counting Consortium, a research group that tracks the size of political protests, there has been a significant increase in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations this year. It also discovered a spike in the monthly share of total right-wing protests with anti-LGBTQ claims: it had been at or near zero from early 2017 to the middle of this year, and then it began to creep up, reaching 16% in September. According to the report, a sizable — and growing — proportion of anti-LGBTQ protesters are armed.
Notably, 31 people were arrested in June at the annual LGBTQ Pride in the Park event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The suspects, who were members of a white nationalist organisation, were arrested on suspicion of riot planning. In addition, Boston’s Children’s Hospital made national headlines in August after receiving a bomb threat for providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth.
In a terrorism advisory bulletin issued last month, the Department of Homeland Security expressed concern about potential threats to the LGBTQ, Jewish, and migrant communities from violent extremists within the United States. According to the bulletin, recent attacks, such as the Colorado shooting at Club Q, have inspired some extremists.
Since then, a gay California lawmaker has received his second bomb threat of the year, laced with homophobic tropes and rhetoric. Last week, a group of protesters vandalised the home and office of Erik Bottcher, a gay member of the New York City Council. Bottcher said his office building’s hallway and the sidewalk outside his apartment building had been defaced with homophobic graffiti after he attended a Drag Story Hour event at a public library two days earlier. According to the council member, two women were arrested for trespassing.
Data from recent anti-LGBTQ protests and attacks show that drag performers have been targeted at disproportionately high rates.
According to a report released days after the Club Q shooting by the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, drag events have faced at least 141 protests and significant threats in 47 states this year. According to KFOR and KJRH, NBC affiliates in Oklahoma, a doughnut shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was vandalised and firebombed by a Molotov cocktail in two separate incidents after hosting a drag event in October.
The incidents, combined with the mass shooting at Club Q, prompted several high-profile drag performers to tighten security. Several tour operators have previously told NBC News that they have hired armed guards for their tours.
It’s time to “stand together.”
Although it was a year of extremes, LGBTQ advocates point out that there were several significant victories for LGBTQ Americans.
According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that advocates for queer candidates, at least 400 LGBTQ candidates won their races in this year’s midterm elections.
The Human Rights Campaign’s director of strategic initiatives, Justin Unga, also pointed to the far-right candidates’ worse-than-expected midterm election results. These losses occurred as a result of conservative groups ramping up misleading or inflammatory campaign ads aimed at transgender rights.
“This is an opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community to unite and a reminder to politicians that if they come after us, we will come after them at the ballot box,” Unga said. “This should be an empowering moment for the LGBTQ community as well as a wake-up call.”
Unga also mentioned the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified federal safeguards for same-sex and interracial marriages. The historic legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden this month after passing both chambers of Congress with unexpected bipartisan support.
“It was joyful, but there was also the knowledge that the work was not yet done,” said Cummings, who was present at the law’s signing ceremony at the White House. “We must continue to push forward, and we will continue to push forward.”