Dare We Hope? What LGBTQ People Really Expect from the Biden Presidency

by Dale Pauly

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 19, 2021

President-elect Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden  (Source:AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Biden team LGBTQ+ Engagement Director Reggie Greer often said that, if victorious, the new administration would need to "walk and chew gum" at the same time if they truly expected to advance queer rights. "We can't set aside any issue," he said in an October interview with the LGBTQ website them. "We are fighting to not only restore the soul of the nation but to get the country back on track on several priorities."

Those priorities, laid out in sweeping fashion with The Biden Plan to Advance LBGTQ+ Equality in America and Around the World, provide a series of platform stances and action plans covering key issues like military service, health care, youth issues, discrimination, violence, and global rights — all told, the most comprehensive LGBTQ platform of any incoming president.

Headlining the platform is the Equality Act, which Biden had promised to pass in his first 100 days in office — though he's already had to lower expectations, given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the Capitol coup attempt. First introduced in 2015, the Equality Act would effectively expand the Civil Rights Act to provide explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in virtually all areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, and public services.

President-elect Joe Biden is a longtime politician whose once-prickly stances on queer issues have taken time to evolve. Though an early supporter of marriage equality within the Obama administration, Biden wasn't always such a staunch ally: As a new senator in 1973, he said he thought gays serving in the military and civil service could pose security risks. Throughout the 1990s, Senator Joe Biden voted against LGBTQ interests in several key pieces of legislation, including DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) and DADT (Don't Ask, Don't Tell). Even through the '00s, he repeated his belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. Then, as vice president in a 2012 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Biden surprised nearly everyone — including most of the Obama administration — by stating his support for marriage equality.

Biden's stances and credibility on LGBTQ issues have continued to advance in the years since. In November, he became the first incoming president to mention transgender Americans in his victory speech. A few days later, he named trans military veteran Shawn Skelly to his transition team, and has since added several other LGBTQ people to critical roles in his administration. Biden's nomination of former Democratic rival Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation will make Buttigieg the first openly gay presidential cabinet member in U.S. history. And, after flipping both Senate seats in Georgia earlier this month, Democrats will now control all three branches of government for the first time in a decade, which should make passing legislation more feasible.

But in a nation struggling with racial injustice and now badly bruised by insurrection, not to mention an incoming administration vexed by the rockiest of power transitions, just how hopeful are LGBTQ Americans that the Biden-Harris team will be able to deliver on their promises?

"I have hope, not confidence," says Los Angeles-based queer life coach and influencer Reneice Charles. "The work that needs to happen to truly bring this country to the needed place of safety, justice and equality is vast and deep. It cannot be done with a 'both sides' approach, and that's what Biden and the Democratic Party as a whole don't seem willing to engage with. Until that changes, progress will be stalled."

Though the 2020 election did bring historic local wins for LGBTQ candidates of color, like Pennsylvania State representative Malcolm Kenyatta, Puerto Rico State Senator Ana Irma Rivera Lassn, and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Charles believes real improvement will require a collective nationwide reckoning with white supremacy and how it fuels transphobia and homophobia — "something that a white, heterosexual, cisgender president cannot understand to the degree necessary to lead."

Others, like New York City-based transgender activist, writer, and artist Lara Americo, are more optimistic, if guardedly so. "I think while they're probably going to disappoint us about certain things here and there, I'm very hopeful that it will at the very least be as good as it was when Obama was in office," Americo told NBC News of her hopes for the Biden administration.

"There's a lot of happiness and obviously a celebration, but I think there are some reservations," Patrick Zabasnik told Pittsburgh public radio station WESA. Zabasnik, the acting chair of Pittsburgh's Equality Center, said those reservations include the difficulty and length of time it will take to reverse the litany of anti-LGBTQ policies put in place by the Trump administration, such as the rollback of Obama-era non-discrimination protections for workers and the use of Title IX to discriminate against trans students.

Like many nationwide, Zabasnik is most hopeful about passage of the Equality Act, which would supersede state law and offer non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, something Pennsylvania currently does not do. The Equality Act would allow those "who identify as transgender or non-binary [to have] identification documents that [match] how they present and who they are," he said.

Ironically, the current shock and upheaval in D.C. could help speed up progress on LGBTQ issues. "The insurrection in Washington may have perversely given Biden a boost," opined writer John Gallagher this week in an editorial for LGBTQ Nation. "Republicans are in disarray right now, and at least some of them are appropriately chastened by events. They may be willing to give Biden more leeway with his agenda than the full-on stonewalling they had been planning before the Georgia results came in."

More likely, the question of a Trump impeachment trial, and the ongoing pandemic, with a national effort towards mass vaccination, will now impede that 100-day goal. Hampering efforts even further, The Washington Blade reported, "the committee of jurisdiction for the Equality Act in the Senate is the Judiciary Committee, the same panel responsible for coordinating Trump's impeachment trial."

Marketing specialist Quinn Kathner, the former president of South Dakota's Sioux Falls Pride, is optimistic about the possibilities of the Biden presidency. "I feel like I have hope again," she told Sioux Falls's Argus Leader. "I feel like it's just going to be a step in the right direction for progress, especially for the LGBTQ community." She added that she knows the Democratic Party isn't perfect and that it will be essential to hold legislators and leaders accountable. "The journey doesn't stop," she said. "It's an ongoing process that we'll need to stay diligent with."

Like Kathner, trans South Carolinian Jeremy Berg stresses the importance of local involvement to move progress forward. "We can't solely rely on the administration to carry us and do everything for us," says Berg, incoming vice president of PFLAG's Spartanburg chapter. "We must still keep pushing forward for our own community and fighting for our rights and beliefs."

Another critical thing the queer community and its allies must do, says Charles, is to uphold and fight for the rights of all LGBTQ people — something she's very skeptical about Biden's ability to do. "I do not believe Joe Biden is committed to making the lives of incarcerated LGBTQ folks better," she says. "In fact, he's in support of expanding the very parts of the system that oppress that part of our community. I do not believe a president intent on increasing funding of a law enforcement system that is clearly corrupt and far more violent toward Black, Brown and LGBTQ communities is someone to have confidence in with regards to rights for all."

Charles believes that the protection of Black trans people is the most important and urgent issue that the Biden administration needs to address. The President-elect has at least acknowledged the direness of the situation. In an October official statement, he decried the alarming rise in murders of trans and gender-nonconforming Americans, the majority of whom have been women of color. At least 44 such murders occurred in 2020, according to HRC, and already this year trans murders have been reported in Chicago and Puerto Rico.

"Eradicating the extreme violence and constant extinguishing of life faced by trans people in this country should be highest priority of this administration and every member of the LGBTQ community," says Charles.

Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, another Biden skeptic, spoke of her misgivings about the President-elect in a statement to the New York Times last summer. "As queer people, we abhor the way that Biden, in his eagerness to reach across the aisle, winds up being an apologist for homophobes like Mike Pence," she said. "But we also remember how powerful an ally he was as vice president, and how instrumental he was in pulling Obama to the right place in a way few people could have."

Globally, a Trump-weary world is hopeful that the Biden team can help the United States return to a position of LGBTQ rights leadership. "I hope that there's going to be very close co-operation between the U.S. and the European Union to really support civil society and LGBTI activists across the world," Terry Reintke, the co-president of the European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights, told Time. "Because in the end, they are the ones that can actually change societies and can make equality a reality."