Joe Biden’s win was a ‘sigh of relief’ for LGBTQ+ people. Now activists want stronger protections

By Sam Levin in Los Angeles

Joe Biden has promised to undo years of anti-LGBTQ+ policies by Donald Trump’s administration, but advocates and civil rights leaders are urging the president-elect to go further in expanding protections and opportunities for queer and transgender people.

In its four years in office, the Trump administration systematically attacked the fundamental rights of LGBTQ+ people, stripping away safeguards enacted in the previous administration in education, immigration, healthcare, housing and criminal justice.

The administration in particular targeted trans rights, boosting Republican efforts to exploit trans people with fear-mongering campaign messages, and rewriting regulations with outdated and inaccurate definitions of gender that erase trans identity.

Some efforts were more successful than others, but the cumulative impact was severe. “I’ve been afraid to be growing up in this world where I’m not wanted and not accepted,” said Aryn Bucci-Mooney, a 16-year-old trans student and youth activist in Albany, New York.

“The climate that Trump has perpetuated is astonishing. My mental health has declined because of it … It’s just been a big sigh of relief with Biden’s win,” he said.

Aryn Bucci-Mooney, 16, is a youth activist in New York.
Aryn Bucci-Mooney, 16, is a youth activist in New York. Photograph: Courtesy of Aryn Bucci-Mooney

‘Some damage can’t be undone’

One of Trump’s earliest efforts to strip away trans rights came in July 2017, when he announced by tweet that “the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military”. The ban, which has survived repeated court challenges, impacted an estimated 15,000 trans personnel along with countless others forced to hide their identities or change career paths.

It was the start of a broader offensive that included repeated efforts to deny trans people access to basic accommodations, with regulations that encouraged discrimination in schools, sports, medical care, prisons, homeless shelters, employment and beyond.

Trump rolled back protections for trans people in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which had prohibited employment discrimination based on gender identity by government contractors. He also reversed health protections for trans people.

The administration pushed to allow federally funded homeless shelters to reject trans people and no longer mandated the bureau of prisons to consider gender identity when making decisions over where to house prisoners.

Demonstrators protest Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military.
Demonstrators protest Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos rescinded anti-discrimination protections for trans children and threatened to take funding from schools that allowed trans athletes to participate on teams that matched their gender. The policies, said Eliza Byard, executive director of Glsen, a group that works with LGBTQ+ youth, forced trans students across the country to return to using incorrect facilities, a practice that has been linked to increased rates of assault and other serious harms. The damage will be lasting, she said: “What has been taken from them can’t be undone.”

Many of Trump’s policies were challenged in court. In a major victory for LGBTQ+ rights groups, the supreme court ruled in June that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does protect gay and trans workers. But Trump’s term coincided with reports of increased bullying and harassment in schools, a surge in hate crimes and record levels of violence.

Bucci-Mooney, the trans student, came out when he was 12 at the start of Trump’s presidency. He said he was taunted and bullied when he played on the boy’s soccer team, and that he eventually quit. Now on the wrestling team, the high school junior said it would be a relief to have federal policy that supports his basic right to exist.

Trump’s rules “validate the idea that we are not human beings, that it’s OK to discriminate against us simply because we were born in the wrong body, that it’s OK to take away a student’s right to feel safe”, Bucci-Mooney said. “These are children we are talking about.”

Nic Talbott, a 27-year-old Ohio resident, was working with an Air Force National Guard recruiter when Trump announced the ban on trans people in the military, forcing him to abandon his plans. A plaintiff in the legal case challenging the ban, Talbott was denied student loan forgiveness, scholarships, access to health care and other opportunities when he wasn’t able to enlist. He plans enroll in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps after Biden removes the ban.

“It’s been difficult to watch my friends starting their careers and their families, and I’m just sitting here waiting to begin my adult life.” Serving in the closet was not an option: “I should be able to live in my private and public life as the best version of myself.”

Nic Talbott, 27, is a plaintiff in a legal case challenging Trump’s ban on trans people in the military.
Nic Talbott, 27, is a plaintiff in a legal case challenging Trump’s ban on trans people in the military. Photograph: Keith Srakocic/AP

‘The fight doesn’t stop here’

On LGTBQ+ rights, Biden’s team has promised “the most comprehensive plan to advance equality” in history. That starts by dismantling Trump’s agenda, including a repeal of the military’s trans ban.

Biden also plans to reinstate the Obama-era guidance guaranteeing that trans students can access appropriate sports activities, bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities on his first day in office.

He promised to restore protections for trans people in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and will reinstate protections for trans people in federally funded homeless shelters. Under Biden, the US bureau of prisons will reestablish rules that allow trans people to be housed based on their gender.

But activists on the left are hoping Biden does more than return to the policies of 2016. “The fight doesn’t stop here after election day,” said Bucci-Mooney.

Biden has pledged to pass the Equality Act, which would strengthen LGBTQ+ protections under the law, though its passage likely hinges on whether Democrats take control of the Senate.

With federal protections secured, advocates argue, the justice department under Biden should aggressively and proactively target anti-trans laws on the state level. Several states are currently pushing bills to target healthcare and athletic opportunities for trans children and force schools to out trans students to their families.

LGBTQ+ activists and supporters rally outside the US supreme court in Washington DC.
LGBTQ+ activists and supporters rally outside the US supreme court in Washington DC. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The bills could have fatal consequences, said Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice at the ACLU, who helped win the Title VII case. “We’re putting young people at incredible risk, either compromising their care when they have supportive families, or outing them when they don’t. We’re absolutely going to cause people to die, and it will be catastrophic.”

Strangio said he also hoped the new administration would use the supreme court decision as an opportunity to expand anti-discrimination protections across federal agencies, with an expansive interpretation of the law.

On immigration, Biden has promised to rebuild the asylum system that Trump destroyed. Biden has pledged to “end prolonged detention”, noting that LGBTQ+ migrants face higher rates of sexual violence in jail. But activists are pushing the new administration to release all trans and queer people currently detained and to give them support when they arrive at the border, instead of jail.

“This is the opportunity to ensure that trans immigrants are not detained, and that we provide them with the legal services they need,” said Jorge Gutierrez, founder of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM), a national LGBTQ+ Latinx group.

LGBTQ+ undocumented groups said they were concerned that Biden’s transition team now includes Cecilia Muñoz, an official from the Obama-Biden administration, who oversaw the record 3m deportations that took place in the Obama years. “It’s not good news for us that she’s back. How do we prevent these deportations and push president-elect Biden to do better?” said Emilio Vicente, another TQLM activist.

Strangio said he also wanted to see Biden’s DoJ use its authorities to investigate civil rights abuses against incarcerated trans people, and do more to release LGBTQ+ people and others in federal prisons who have suffered during Covid.

Although the Biden win was a relief, he added, “This change in administration changes the terms on which we’re operating in many ways, but it doesn’t change the need for people to continue to organize and demand more from these systems.”