It took only hours after being sworn in on Wednesday for President Joe Biden to make it clear that LGBTQ equality would be at the forefront of priorities in the Biden-Harris administration. Amid a flurry of executive orders he signed was a landmark directive banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in the federal government, immediately crossing out four years of anti-LGBTQ policies Donald Trump and Mike Pence attempted to implement (to varying degrees of success) and expanding the legal reasoning of the Supreme Court’s ruling this past summer in favor of LGBTQ employment protections. It was the opening policy salvo from Biden in what is expected to be the pro-LGBTQ presidential administration in history.
The long-anticipated executive order follows numerous groundbreaking personnel announcements. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, and after a sterling confirmation hearing which drew praise from Senators on both sides of the aisle, he is widely expected to become the first openly LGBTQ person confirmed by the Senate to a presidential cabinet. Dr Rachel Levine, a pediatrician and the Pennsylvania Health Secretary, is Biden’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services; when confirmed, she will be not only the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the US Senate but the highest-ranking openly transgender government official in American history. Biden’s own White House staff is poised to have more openly LGBTQ people in senior positions than any previous administration, including Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, Deputy Communications Director Pili Tobar, and White House Social Secretary Carlos Elizondo.
There’s no shortage of evidence for optimism in Biden’s vision for LGBTQ equality, but there’s also no shortage of work still to be done. His executive order, although historic in scope, only pertains to discrimination within the jurisdiction of the federal government; it essentially takes the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Bostock v. Clayton County that held LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination in employment and expands it to include all other policy areas. However, like that ruling, it does not address how in most of the United States, LGBTQ people are still vulnerable to discrimination in housing, public accommodations, credit, jury service, and other areas of state jurisdictions where no protections exist or worse, where discrimination is openly permitted.
Because of this patchwork of protections across the United States, an LGBTQ person driving across the country would pass through numerous cities, counties, and states where they will not be protected against discrimination. The solution to this is the Equality Act, legislation that would ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in all states and jurisdictions. In the previous legislative session, the House passed it in an historic bipartisan vote and constituency groups from faith leaders to business coalitions heartily endorsed it. In fact, polling shows the vast majority of Americans support such non-discrimination protections. The biggest obstacle that kept it from becoming law was Mitch McConnell’s refusal to bring it to the floor of the Senate for consideration, essentially protecting numerous Republican senators who would have been forced to vote on the bill in a tough election year. Now that Democrats have gained back control of the Senate, their GOP colleagues will be forced to take a position on a widely popular piece of legislation. Biden, of course, pledged and reiterated countless times that he would sign the bill into law if elected.
And yet, the work doesn’t end there either. Beyond the Equality Act are a number of policy areas that Biden himself will need to address by executive and agency action and which he is expected to do so in good time: overturning Trump’s senseless ban on openly trans people
in the military, returning to incarceration policies that protect transgender and non-binary persons held in prisons, and establishing a sensible federal plan to end the HIV epidemic. LGBTQ groups have pointed to other objectives that are just as critical, including the release of transgender persons and those living with HIV from detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the establishment of an LGBTQ Equity Advisory Council that would guide the administration on policy from community leaders and experts.
Most pressing in the minds of many LGBTQ people, myself included, has been the ongoing epidemic of violence against transgender and non-binary people, overwhelmingly of whom are Black women. Last year was the deadliest on record: at least 44 trans and non-binary people were reported murdered. In the first three weeks of 2021, two trans people have already been killed. Although some of the above policies will help reduce this, LGBTQ groups are rightly calling for a task force specifically dedicated to addressing deadly violence against trans and non-binary people. This should be an easy call for the Biden-Harris administration.
There is a great deal of hope for the future under President Biden. He has consistently demonstrated empathy and understanding for LGBTQ people and coupled this with an honest evolution on what it means to be free and equal in this country, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2012, he told the mother of a trans daughter that equality for trans people is “the civil rights issue of our time”. In his victory speech in November, he became the first winning presidential candidate to specifically mention trans people. His proud endorsements of Virginia State Delegate Danica Roem and Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride — both of whom made history in being elected to those offices — signaled to the country that he would stand beside the LGBTQ community through thick and thin.
After four miserable and grueling years under an administration that aggressively attacked LGBTQ people, we finally have a leader in the Oval Office who will not hesitate to fight for us. And that’s fortunate because there’s a whole lot of labor left to be done to ensure equality is realized by all in our community, both here and around the world.