LGBTQI+ equality is central to health of our democracy

Last week, world leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector gathered virtually for the Summit for Democracy to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle today’s greatest threats to democracy. In advance of the summit, the Council for Global Equality—a coalition of LGBTQI advocacy organizations of which the Center for American Progress is a proud member—in collaboration with F&M Global Barometers published report cards assessing the extent to which participating states have fulfilled their obligations to ensure LGBTQI+ people are full citizens and able to contribute to and benefit from democratic institutions. Unfortunately, the United States’ score on the human rights of LGBTQI+ people is in critical need of improvement. While we scored a 70 percent on basic human rights—a C- if our country were a school—we received failing grades in protecting LGBTQI+ Americans from violence and upholding the socioeconomic rights of LGBTQI+ Americans. We clearly need to catch up on our homework.

Why the terrible scores? A key reason is that LGBTQI+ Americans continue to lack comprehensive nondiscrimination protections at the federal level, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination in key areas of life such as taxpayer-funded programs like emergency shelters and in stores and restaurants. On top of that, this year marked the most anti-LGBTQI+ state legislative session in history, with transphobic attacks lodged at our most vulnerable community members: our children. From blocking access to necessary medical care, to prohibiting transgender kids from joining school sports teams, to erasing all mention of the existence of LGBTQI+ people from textbooks, more than 100 bills targeting transgender people were introduced in state legislatures last session. And school districts across the country are racing to pull LGBTQI+ -themed books and authors from library shelves. These attacks against the basic rights and dignity of LGBTQI+ people, and transgender people, in particular, have devastating consequences.

It should come as no surprise that, according to a 2020 survey by the Center for American Progress, over half of transgender people reported avoiding public spaces like stores and restaurants in order to avoid the trauma of discrimination. In addition to being the most anti-trans legislative session, 2021 is also the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, with over 50 reported killings of transgender or gender-nonconforming people, the majority of whom were Black and brown transgender women. 

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, over 80 percent of Americans support protections for LGBTQI+ Americans such as those found in the Equality Act, which passed the House in early 2021 yet still awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill’s provisions also have support from majorities in every state across the country, regardless of political ideology or faith tradition. Despite the protections’ broad popularity, support among elected officials lags behind that of the people they are supposed to represent. Congress’ failure to enact massively popular legislation advancing LGBTQI+ equality while state legislatures launched attacks on transgender children emphasizes how our country’s crisis in democracy impacts the basic rights of LGBTQI+ Americans. It also is reflected in our country’s dismal LGBTQI grades as compared to other countries participating in the Summit for Democracy this week. Unsurprisingly, research has shown a strong correlation between the strength of a country’s democratic institutions and the legal rights of its LGBTQI+ citizens. We are also coming to understand that the inverse is also true: The full and inclusive participation of LGBTQI+ citizens strengthens democratic institutions and the democratic process itself. 

The Summit for Democracy is not the end but the launch of a year of action. LGBTQI+ Americans need the Senate to get to work and bring the country closer to realizing its founding ideals by passing the Equality Act. And to ensure our elected leaders better represent the American public, Congress should also pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would strengthen the integrity of our elections and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Let’s work together to hold our elected representatives accountable for strengthening our democracy for all Americans and bring home straight As next year.

Sharita Gruberg is the vice president of the LGBTQI+ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Mark Bromley is the chair of the Council for Global Equality.