Arguing to center LGBTQ people in contemporary discussions about, and activism for, civil rights, certainly risks igniting an inflammatory comparative oppressions debate about which groups are most marginalized and under assault in U.S. society.
Racism is alive and well in America. Voter suppression efforts, particularly against African Americans, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disenfranchising African Americans. White nationalism and more pervasive and often less dramatic and thoroughgoing institutionalized white supremacy, endorsed and encouraged by the highest office in the land, validate a reign of terror and more general de-valuing of the lives of people of color, particularly African Americans, in the U.S. Immigrants of color are being caged and criminalized. And one could go on—unfortunately, on and on.
When it comes to equal rights, and hence civil rights, for women, well, Virginia just recently became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the ERA still faces substantial obstacles—and heated defiance—in making its way into the Constitution.
Our nation still trembles, indeed inflames, when it comes to validating this simple statement statement in the ERA :
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
And, of course, the all-out assault on abortion rights underscores the ongoing assault on women’s civil rights.
And yet, while it is indisputable that women and people of color have been denied civil rights, their personhood has nonetheless been acknowledged in civil rights legislation. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
This language does not include, apparently, LGBTQ people. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case brought heard last October arguing that the word “sex” should include sexual orientation and gender identity.
While the verdict is not in, a good portion of the justices’ discussion and questions seemed less than promising for the case’s success. For example, Justice Samuel Alito at one point responded to attorney Pamela Karlan, representing two of the plaintiffs, “You’re trying to change the meaning of what Congress understood sex to mean in 1964.”
But beyond the question of whether or not LGBTQ people will find their collective personhood recognized and protected in U.S. law, active efforts are alive and well across the nation and in the Trump administration to exclude LGBTQ from already existing legal protections, rolling back rights already granted.
The Iowa GOP, for example, recently filed a bill to remove transgender people from the state’s civil rights protections. These rights were written into law for LGBTQ people in 2007 when the state added sexual orientation and gender identity to its anti-discrimination law. According to Alex Bollinger, reporting for LGBTQ Nation, passage of the bill would “make it the first state to give civil rights protections to transgender people – or any class at all – and then take them away.”
Passage of the bill would mean one could be fired, denied housing, and more, simply for being transgender, for being who you are.
In fact, transgender people in America are already enduring—and have persistently endured– the consequences of this lack of protection.
Last December Lola Fadulu, in The New York Times, wrote an extensive piece chronicling the Trump administration’s myriad rollbacks of Obama-era executive orders. The piece begins with the story of Nicolas Talbott, a transgender graduate student at Kent State University who is also enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps program. Because of Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military, Talbott was informed that he could stay in the program but would not be eligible to actually become an officer and would also no longer be eligible for the health insurance and student loan forgiveness he had been promised and which others in the program received.
Fadulu provides a laundry list of such rollbacks and consequences individuals have suffered.
The onslaught on LBGTQ people, and transgender people in particular, is intensifying and widespread, and they are being written out of the law.
Or else negatively written into it. The Governor of Tennessee recently signed legislation enabling foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ parents.
Back in 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began rolling back Obama-era protections for transgender students, denying them equal protection in their schools.
And, of course, the nation’s Attorney General William Barr freely denounces LGBTQ people in the name of religious liberty.
Here’s Barr, enumerating in a recent speech at Notre dame law School what he sees as the secular assault on “religious liberty”:
“The first front relates to the content of public school curriculum. Many states are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional religious principles according to which parents are attempting to raise their children. They often do so without any opt out for religious families.
Thus, for example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching. Similar laws have been passed in California and Illinois. And the Orange County Board of Education in California issued an opinion that “parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may not excuse their children from this instruction.”
Hatred of LGBTQ people is being legalized, actually written into law, such that they have no legal grounds to challenge discrimination or to seek protection.
Law and language don’t always materialize into reality. Historically, when it comes to marginalizing women and people of color nd denying them the rights of liberty, life and equal protection, the law and language haven’t served. But they are there and not unimportant.
Getting Civil Rights language and law for LGBTQ people matters.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.