2016 Could be a Very Difficult Year for LGBT Activists


In Georgia, LGBT advocates are not having a great week.

A bill to make it law that religious officials don’t have to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies is sailing through the Republican-controlled legislature. It passed a key committee on Tuesday, which happened to be the same day Republicans stripped protections for gay and transgender people from a civil rights bill. And in voting against the proposed LGBT protections, a Republican lawmaker wondered out loud whether gay children and teens really do need protection from bullying.

“We’re trying to make sure somebody doesn’t get bullied by anybody else,” said state Rep. Tom Weldon, according to footage of the hearing, “and those who overcome bullies seem to be the ones who usually do well on down the road, so to speak, or throughout life.”

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LGBT advocates who heard this face-palmed. They say this is exactly the kind of careless sentiment that has helped foster a confusing patchwork of state laws that make LGBT Americans feel like second-class citizens in many states.

[You can now lead a Boy Scout troop if you’re gay. Here are 7 things you still can’t do.]

And even though Georgia is a deep-red state with a history of opposing LGBT-friendly bills, the headache it’s causing advocates this week is actually pretty minor compared to what’s on tap in many other states.

In state legislatures across the nation, in fact, 2016 is shaping up to be a very difficult year for LGBT rights groups.

Less than eight months after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, LGBT advocates are on the defensive, playing whack-a-mole with a massive number of bills in state legislatures they say are meant to peel back LGBT rights.

Five and a half weeks into most state legislative sessions, the Human Rights Campaign, the leading LGBT rights lobbying group, is tracking some 150 bills it classifies as “unfriendly” to LGBT people. In the entire 2015 legislative session, it tracked 110.

HRC is watching a litany of religious exemption bills. You might remember the one that caused so much controversy in Indiana last year, but these are slightly different. They would, like the wedding ceremony proposal in Georgia, aim to extend legal protections for people whose religions don’t condone same-sex marriage. LGBT advocates argue they only serve to poke holes in civil rights protections, furthering discrimination.

[LGBT advocates are 2-for-2 in fighting religious freedom bills]

Adding to the drama, the celebrity in conservative circles of Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue gay couples marriage licenses, has raised the profile of these bills and created an impetus for action. In January, Davis was even a congressman’s guest at President Obama’s final State of the Union address.

Proponents of religious exemption bills say they’re not intended to discriminate against any one group, but rather to protect residents from discrimination.

“The concern that I have is that the people of faith in Georgia are being discriminated against, and that needs to stop,” said Georgia Baptist leader J. Robert White recently.

Jon Griffin, a policy specialist with the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures, says he’s also watching a brewing battle among anti-discrimination bills — whether LGBT Americans should have laws on the books protecting them from discrimination from housing or services in public accommodations.

Georgia is one of about 28 states where it’s legal to refuse service to someone who is gay, and that number is higher for transgender people. In about 28 states, including Georgia, people can be denied housing based on their sexual orientation. Opponents of LGBT anti-discrimination bills say it’s not necessary. Weldon, the Georgia lawmaker who made the bullying comment, said his main concern with including LGBT people in the state’s civil rights bill was that it would be too broad.

But perhaps the biggest battle this year at the state level is on the transgender front — so-called “bathroom bills.” Should people be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender they were born with or the gender they identify with? Proposals to limit bathrooms to someone’s biological gender have cropped up in legislatures from Hawaii to Virginia.

“It’s been a little bit disheartening,” said Sarah Warbelow, Human Rights Campaign’s legal director.

There are a few, not mutually exclusive theories on why 2016 is shaping up to be so difficult for LGBT advocates.

Like most issues thriving at the state level, the absence of any federal leadership has created a vacuum. And that’s being filled by Republican-dominated statehouses. Republicans control three-quarters of the country’s state legislatures and, quite simply, are in a position to push their agenda.

Religious exemption and bathroom bills are leading many of those legislatures’ agendas for a few reasons. In some conservative states, there’s a political backlash after the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling. That ruling overrode state law in 13 U.S. states, many of which are trying to pass laws to counter some of its effects.

And on the bathroom front, school districts across the nation are struggling with how to treat transgender students. A Chicago-area school district got in trouble with the Department of Education this fall, for example, when it prohibited a transgender student from using the girls’ locker room.

In the absence of any congressional action to deal with all of this, state legislatures are attempting to step in. They’re aided in part by emboldened opponents of gender-neutral bathrooms, who appear to have found a message that can resonate with a wide variety of voters. Houston voters in November defeated a local equal-protection ordinance that, among other things, would have allowed transgender residents to use a bathroom that fits their gender identity.

Opponents of the ordinance launched a sophisticated — and simple — messaging campaign: “No men in women’s bathrooms” read ominous signs, T-shirts and TV ads across the city.
Texas Values Action ‘Protect Freedom, Preserve Safety in Houston’
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Texas Values Action released an ad to fight against the proposed gay rights ordinance in Houston. (YouTube/Texas Values Action)

It worked in Houston, and to LGBT advocates’ dismay, it appears to be gaining traction nationwide.

Still, they’re not giving up hope. Warbelow believes educating voters on how little legal protections LGBT Americans have at the state and federal level can win people over to their side. “It’s both about shifting the laws, but also shifting attitudes to crate a more inclusive society,” she said.

For now, though, LGBT people are being put on the defensive after what was a very good year for them.