Taking Away Our Civil Rights Must Not Become the New Normal After Dobbs

One year later it still feels surreal. I still find myself shaking my head in disbelief that the Supreme Court actually overturned Roe v. Wademarking the first time it has eliminated rather than expanded a fundamental personal right. How can a constitutional guarantee of liberty not include the right to determine what happens to one’s own body? How can those who profess a commitment to that liberty support forced pregnancy? With its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court demonstrated, as it has in so many areas, how far out of alignment it is with what the majority of people in this country believe and want. The majority does not want the government forcing people to be pregnant against their will. The elections last summer and fall showed that clearly. And yet here we are.

The majority of people in this country also favor equality for LGBTQ people. They don’t want to force us back into the closet with “don’t say gay” bills, censorship of library books, or drag show bans. They celebrate our marriages and support our families. They don’t want us fired from our jobs or denied service in stores and restaurants because of who we are. And yet 2023 is far and away the worst year on record for anti-LGBTQ legislation in the states.

Those who want to control others and force us into gendered roles don’t care that their views are deeply unpopular. If anything, the Dobbs ruling has emboldened them. Now, in addition to banning abortion or restricting abortion in many states, this same aggressive minority is succeeding in banning medically necessary health care for transgender youth and, in some states, adults. They’re using the anti-abortion playbook to attack essential medical care and deprive people of established medical treatments. In some instances, they’re seeking to ban both types of care — abortion and transition-related care — in the same bills. And, not content with oppressing those within their own states’ borders, some of these legislators are seeking to enforce these laws even against state residents — effectively health care refugees — who travel to other states to get the care they need.

In recent years, the LGBTQ community has seen historic advances. The Supreme Court has issued decisions recognizing our freedom to marry, enter into same-sex relationships, and work free from discrimination. Public acceptance of our civil rights is at an all-time high. LGBTQ people hold high-ranking positions in the Biden administration and in public office across the land. A growing number of states have banned conversion therapy, the dangerous practice of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQ youth are stepping forward as advocates, not only for LGBTQ rights but also for racial and economic justice, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. We increasingly see LGBTQ people positively represented in the media and celebrated as artists, athletes, and scholars.

The ugly rhetoric and cruel laws that are proliferating now represent a vicious backlash against this progress. While the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, it doesn’t always move in a linear fashion. Those upset by change are grasping for the past, recycling decades-old tropes to demonize LGBTQ people. They are borrowing tactics from the anti-abortion movement — pretending they are trying to protect children, ignoring science and standards of care, criminalizing health care providers, turning people against their neighbors with bounty hunter schemes, and fomenting violence.

In some ways, it makes sense that anti-LGBTQ forces would turn to anti-abortion tactics — because they have worked. Those opposed to progress know that if women truly controlled their reproductive lives, they would be empowered and equal. They talk of being pro-life, but they are in reality pro-control. What do they do to prevent unintended pregnancy? What do they do to reduce maternal mortality, especially among Black women? What do they do to ensure that the children born of these forced pregnancies can actually thrive?

At the National Center for Lesbian Rights we have long understood the fundamental connections between LGBTQ equality and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Unfortunately, our opponents are now seeing it too. But while they want to take us backward, we know that a vision of freedom from gender oppression — a vision that unites the movements for LGBTQ equality and for reproductive justice — is the key to a future of true liberation for all.

We’ve been living in the post-Roe United States for a year, and it is taking its toll on those who need abortion care they can’t get and can’t afford to seek in another state. Families with trans youth are now finding themselves in the same untenable position. The attacks from the gender enforcers keep coming and they seem unstoppable and overwhelming. But we can’t stand down, not now. We can’t get used to it, and we can’t give in to it. We are the majority, and we have power. We can show up at school board meetings, run for office, vote, march, write op-eds, and hold our elected officials accountable. And perhaps most importantly, we can tell our stories and show our humanity, because people tend not to try to hurt those they know.

At this moment of peril, when so many states are resorting to brute force threats of criminal punishment and other jackboot tactics in their efforts to turn back the clock on gender equality, it may be tempting to lie low and hope to ride out the storm. But that would be a terrible mistake, and one that will only further embolden and strengthen the dangerous minority who want to impose their cruel regime on the rest of us. Now, far more urgently than ever, we must not become collaborators in our own oppression. We must not silence ourselves. 

Together we can shift the trajectory back toward justice.

Julianna S. Gonen is federal policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.