Big Wins, Bigotry And Backlash: The Queer Political Stories Of 2015

Huge wins followed by equally huge backlash.

2015 was a historic year with marriage equality coming to every state in the nation and transgender visibility surging. But the backlash to queer rights also surged.

Though it may not appear in full focus now, we'll almost certainly look back at 2015 as the year the enemies of LGBT equality doubled-down, became reinvigorated in their fight and determined to do what they could to take away the hard-fought rights that have been won -- as well as keep us from going further. All you have to do is review the year to see that every major win had an equal and opposite reaction, and that achieving full equality will mean simply demanding it -- full stop -- and not settling for half-measures.

Here are a few of the most illustrative queer political stories of 2015.

Obergefell -- And Beyond
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The ruling by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, bringing marriage equality to the entire United States, was profound, empowering and simply majestic.

Having the highest court in the land rule that same-sex couples are to be afforded the same dignity and respect under the U.S. Constitution as heterosexual couples was a monumental, hard-fought achievement.

The couples and individuals who battled in state after state for this right — eventually pushing the case to the high court — were our heroes, as were the visionary attorneys at the forefront, including Mary Bonauto, Evan Wolfson, and Robbie Kaplan.

Though the U.S. was late to the game compared to other countries that had brought marriage equality to their citizens, the Obergefell decision was surely a game-changer, as the U.S. has enormous global influence. The impact here and around the world can’t be underestimated, and we saw enormous positive change in the months following, in part because of Obergefell, both in the states and globally.

But the backlash to Obergefell can't be underestimated as well: Within hours anti-gay forces were diminishing the win, focusing on the narrow 5-4 decision, the unclear if lofty language of Justice Kennedy’s majority decision and the sharp dissent by Chief Justice Roberts. "Religious liberty" became their mantra, as they moved to make themselves immune from the ruling via legislative efforts.

It became clear that Obergefell was a powerful beginning — not an end — and that we’d be back at the high court many times, something LGBT Americans must fully comprehend if we’re to secure full equality and not succumb to victory blindness.
Blows To "Conversion Therapy" -- But It Won't Die Easily
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Oregon and Illinois joined California, New Jersey and Washington, DC in banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender minors in 2015. And perhaps most encouragingly, so did the City Council of Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that in the '90s had been at the forefront in passing anti-gay laws.

The White House came out full force against such therapies, calling for them to be banned at the state and federal levels, and in the fall released a report focusing on the dangers of such therapies. But the road ahead is long; attempts to ban conversion therapy failed in Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Colorado in 2015 -- as they did in a slew of states in 2014, including New York and Michigan -- while Oklahoma actually attempted (and, this time around, failed) to pass a bill protecting conversion therapy.
A Military For All
The Pentagon this year moved toward ending the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military in 2016, including announcing it would “provide leaves of absences for transgender troops being treated with hormones or having surgery.”

It is an extraordinary win for transgender soldiers -- and the U.S. military, keeping the best and the brightest.

The change requires simply striking an archaic Defense Department regulation, as the ban is not written into U.S. law, and came after years of work by activists who pointed to the fact that thousands of transgender people serve in silence and many have been ejected after their gender identity became known.

Following on the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell”(DADT) law in 2011, which banned service by gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the military, and the Pentagon's decision this year to allow women to serve in all combat roles, activists heralded the move for trans inclusion. But many also warned that several GOP presidential candidates had vowed not only to bring back DADT but to pass a law banning transgender open service, and that activists would have to remain vigilant against those who would roll back progress in an instant.
Aaron Schock Goes Down
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For years the gay rumors abounded about Congressman Aaron Schock, a young, buff Illinois Republican who voted anti-gay yet had a very queer fashion sensibility, walked the gayborhood of the GOP convention in Tampa and, according to journalist Itay Hod, was seen coming out of shower with the male roommate of another journalist who walked in on the congressman and the roommate.

But it wasn’t that alleged hypocrisy that had Schock in the headlines for weeks this year, culminating in his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives and an FBI investigation. Instead, it was his very red "Downton-Abbey"-inspired Congressional office that had journalists digging deeper into the lavish spending of a congressman who went to Washington on a vow to cut the pork.

The entire affair once again raised the gay rumors, with Schock's father, without prompting, announcing that "Aaron is different" but "not gay." It also again put a spotlight on the continued squeamishness of reporters regarding homosexuality and the media’s double standard: staying far away for years from covering the alleged hypocrisy of Schock's anti-gay votes — which adversely affected the lives of a discriminated-against minority — while jumping on a story of hypocrisy which they saw as a more acceptable and with wider public appeal.
The Rise Of Kim Davis, Superstar Of Bigotry
When Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis joined several clerks in her state and others in refusing to give out marriage licenses after the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, the headlines reverberated for weeks on end.

Jailed by a federal judge, Davis became a martyr to the cause. Anti-gay politicians like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz flocked to her, while anti-gay hate groups such as the Family Research Council held dinners in her honor and gave her awards. Davis even managed to tarnish Pope Francis, who had carefully managed his image as less hostile to gay people than his predecessor, when a meet-up between the pope and Davis during the pontiff's U.S. trip became public. (The Vatican, in the end, had probably been snookered into the meet-and-greet by anti-gay forces in the Catholic church, while the pope may not have even known who he was greeting in a procession of many other people.)

While there was a powerful reaction by the majority of Americans in polls who said Davis was in the wrong on her crusade, she became a leader — a face — of the backlash against LGBT rights in the guise of “religious freedom." Even after some religious conservatives admitted she was bad for their cause, in one poll near year's end 41 percent of Americans still believed a public servant should be exempt from giving out marriage licenses if it goes against his or her religious beliefs. This showed us who the religious right would be galvanizing in its continued fight against equality, and the enormous work ahead for LGBT activists.
The Indiana Delusion
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In the spring, activists cheered when Indiana's GOP governor, Mike Pence, pictured above, was forced to back down on a nasty Religious Restoration Freedom Act (RFRA) the GOP-controlled legislature had passed and which would allow further bigotry against LGBT people in the state.

Most encouragingly, big business, from Apple and Marriott to Indianapolis-based Angie's List and Eli LilIy, threatened ramifications if the bill was passed. Many called it a "turning point." But we had been here before, back in 2014, when Arizona's governor, also under pressure from big business and under the media spotlight, vetoed a similar bill and everyone had called that a turning point -- only to see Mississippi quietly pass a similar law when the media, big business and activists weren't paying attention.

Sure enough, following the supposed Indiana victory -- which local activists said still left them with an onerous, if watered down, RRFA, and no statewide protections -- states passed even more dangerous bills while media and big business paid no attention.

In June, North Carolina's legislature overrode Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's veto and allowed public officials to opt-out of licensing or officiating over same-sex marriages. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that same week allowing state-funded adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples based on the agencies' religious beliefs. And earlier in the year, just before the Indiana debacle, Arkansas passed a terrible bill which banned localities from passing gay rights laws (and some legal experts believe the law is worded in a way to withstand court scrutiny), again with little attention paid by big business and media.

These events of 2015 should teach us that big business, the media and others are fair weather friends, and that full equality will only come when we stay focused and refuse to be duped by the "turning point" narrative.
A Challenge To White Privilege
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Queer people of color led the way this year in taking direct action against injustice. Black Lives Matter made an indelible impact in taking on police violence against black citizens, including transgender women of color.

The activists who created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, identify as" queer black women" and envisioned Black Lives Matter's mission from the start as inclusive of injustice against LGBT African-Americans.

Similarly, LGBT immigration activists came to the forefront and demanded that the treatment of LGBT immigrants, many of them Latino, be part of the bigger picture for LGBT rights. Jennicet Gutiérrez, a founding member of FAMILIA TQLM, an LGBT immigrant advocacy group, interrupted President Obama's speech at the annual White House LGBT Pride reception in June. "President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations,” she shouted, in part trying to bring attention to the horrendous conditions for LGBT immigrants in detention centers, some of whom have been subjected to violence and sexual assault. The president became irritated and shot back, "You're not gonna get a good response from me by interrupting me like this." But as activists fighting against "don't ask, don't tell" and against the Defense of Marriage Act certainly knew, direct action -- including interrupting the president's speeches -- puts the pressure on and furthers change.

Many in the mostly white LGBT crowd in the room booed Gutiérrez and attempted to drown her out, shouting, "Obama!" But they, too, must be made to realize that the concerns and injustices against queer people of color are very much a part of the struggle for LGBT rights.
Texas: Anti-Queer On Steroids
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In response to the impending win on marriage equality at the Supreme Court, Republicans who run the Texas legislature last spring attempted to pass more than 20 anti-LGBT bills designed to undo any gains and inoculate Texas against any victories for LGBT rights.

The sheer number of bills, a record, was shocking enough; some of the actual legislation itself, however, was breathtakingly sinister. One bill proposed the criminalization of transgender people for using the “wrong” bathroom. Another bill targeting transgender students would essentially put a bounty on their heads if it became law, while forcing school districts to monitor bathrooms: if a student could show that he or she experienced "mental anguish" upon seeing a transgender student in the bathroom, the school district would pay the student $2,000 in "damages."

Still another bill, if passed,would have allowed adoption agencies that receive state funding the right to discriminate against gay couples based on the agency's "sincerely held religious beliefs” and allow child welfare agencies to put kids in dangerous "ex-gay" programs.

Texas LGBT activists fought back vigorously, however, with state legislators like Celia Israel, a lesbian, and Mary Gonzalez, the first openly pansexual state legislator in the country, leading the charge along with groups like the Texas Freedom Network and with LGBT-supportive Democrats in the legislature. The result was an impressive win, running out the clock and beating back the vast majority of the harmful bills.
Transgender Women: A Surge In Political Attacks -- And Murders
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Republican politicians and conservative activists ratcheted up their attacks on transgender people in 2015, a direct backlash against the push for equality and increased visibility, such as the enormously positive attention Caitlyn Jenner received upon her coming out as trans.

Mike Huckabee mocked the plight of transgender women in simply trying to use a public rest room. Ben Carson said the military wasn’t the place for the "transgender thing.” Ted Cruz actually called the Planned Parenthood terrorist, Robert Dear, “a transgender leftist activist.”

By November there had been reports of at least 22 murders of transgender women in 2015 — a record number within any one year— as activists grappled with what could be a horrible surge in violence.

Increased visibility might mean that incidents are being better reported, but we also know that visibility brings a backlash, too, and that backlash almost always includes violence. Either way, political attacks on transgender people by politicians and others take their toll on the streets of cities and towns across America every day. It requires us all to forcefully challenge the bigots and put an end to assaults -- physical or verbal.
No More Half-Measures
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In 2015, pushed by activists at the grass roots level, LGBT groups and politicians who support LGBT rights seemed to drop the incrementalist approach to securing federal protections.

After years of getting nowhere with the narrow Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which had a dangerous religious exemption, advocates dumped it in 2014 and moved forth in 2015 with a comprehensive bill to ban discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, credit and education, with no broad religious exemption.

The LGBT Equality Act was introduced in the House and in the Senate in July, and, in a bold and important step, it would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — as well as women, who actually aren’t protected in public accommodations. If passed it would protect people in the majority of states where there are no statewide protections of any kind for LGBT people, who, every day, are thrown out of their homes by landlords or barred from public accommodations simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

With both the Senate and the House controlled by Republicans -- who've consistently been hostile to the idea of LGBT protections -- and with the status of the House not likely to change for some time, it will likely take years to pass this federal legislation. But in 2015, with the wind at their backs after the marriage ruling and despite the full fury of the backlash, advocates have hopefully realized that we're not taken seriously unless we ask for full equality, and that we must demand it no matter how long it takes.

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