In 2010, no states outlawed conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors, forbid health insurers from excluding transgender-related coverage or offered gender neutral options on licenses and birth certificates.
Ten years later at the dawn of a new decade, roughly 20 states have these protections in place.
Breakthroughs? Or evidence of a plodding pace on the road to LGBTQ equality?
“It’s both,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, which released a report Tuesday on the status of LGBTQ rights from 2010 to 2020.
“We have made a tremendous amount of progress understanding what LGBTQ people need to have a full opportunity to be productive workers, have equal access to health care, to go beyond the basics,” she said. “But at the same time, in half the country, that progress has stalled out.”
The report by MAP, a think tank that maintains a database on laws affecting LGBTQ people, shows a split in the policy landscape in 2020: Nearly half – 46% – of the country lives in states earning “high” or “medium” grades for equality because of protections. But the other half – 45% – lives in states with “low” or “negative” rankings.
Advocates hope rulings in three pivotal Supreme Court cases this year on whether it’s legal to fire workers because of sexual orientation or gender identity will cement a precedent for LGBTQ rights. They also will continue to press for passage of the Equality Act, which would make nondiscrimination a federal guarantee.
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But for now, LGBTQ people are at the mercy of a patchwork of state protections. “You could live in one state and move across the border and core pieces of your life could be in jeopardy,” said Naomi Goldberg, MAP policy research director.
The report, which tracks nearly 40 LGBTQ-related policies and laws in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories, does show significant strides:
• In 2010, 48% of LGBTQ people lived in “negative” policy states. By 2020, that number dropped to 20%.
• The number of people living in “medium” or “high” equality states increased dramatically from 6% in 2010 to nearly half, 46%, in 2020.
• In 2010, only 12 states and the district explicitly prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing and public accommodations. By 2020, that number jumped to 21.
• In 2010, just five states and the district banned health care discrimination against LGBTQ people. In 2020, that number more than doubled to 13 states and the district.
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Same-sex marriage ruling signals progress – then backlashes
A landmark Supreme Court ruling sanctioning same-sex marriage in 2015 capped an evolution taking place in state legislatures and federal courts on LGTBQ relationships in the first half of the decade. In 2010, only 14 states and the district had some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples. By 2020, marriage was the law of the land and included access to marriage-related parenting protections.
Bans on conversion therapy – a discredited practice of trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity – began to take root.
But midway through the decade, backlashes also started to sprout. Some targeted transgender people’s rights. Many took the form of religious exemption laws that let people, churches and sometimes businesses cite religious beliefs as a reason not to enforce a law, such as declining to marry a same-sex couple or letting state-funded foster agencies refuse to place kids with LGBTQ parents.
“When we saw progress in marriage a decade ago, LGBTQ opponents realized that fight was over. All the rights and benefits that came along with marriage were solidified,” Goldberg said. “But it was a strategic move on (opponents’) part. Yes, you can go get married, but when you show up to get that license, we can say no – you have to go somewhere else.”
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In 2010, only one state had a religious exemption law. Now 13 states have those laws.
And more harmful bills are percolating. In 2020, MAP’s database shows at least 121 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation in the mix in various states. Transgender youths take a particularly hard hit: Fourteen states are weighing bills excluding transgender students from sports; 11 have floated legislation that bans medical care for transgender minors, some even making treatment a crime.
And at least 14 states have three or more anti-LGBTQ bills on the docket.
Local laws help notch progress in Florida
Nadine Smith lives in Florida, where “Anita Bryant put us on the map in the worst possible way” in the 1970s with her anti-gay crusades.
But Smith, the CEO and co-founder of civil rights group Equality Florida, has seen a slow transformation in the state in recent years, mainly because cities and counties have moved the marker – much more so than the Legislature.
In 2010, Florida was ranked a “negative” equality state by MAP. Ten years later, it’s a “low” equality state. “The people of Florida are absolutely moving in the correct direction,” Smith said. “The majority of people are living in places where localities have passed nondiscrimination ordinances on sexual orientation and gender identity. Localities are showing leadership where the state has failed.”
As LGBTQ individuals become more visible, attitudes shift and inspire change, Smith said. People “meet janitors, firefighters, accountants all living a life for themselves. Being out in everyday situations matters a great deal.”
But the number of detrimental bills being weighed in the coming year in Florida – including one “horrific” piece of legislation that threatens doctors with up to 15 years of prison time for providing medical care to trans youths – loom large, she said. “To introduce legislation that would erode local policies in existence for more than a decade … it’s clear we are collateral damage.”
Yet, Smith remains determined and optimistic. When she was growing up in the Panhandle, she had to trick a classmate into checking out a book that had gay themes from the library. Now her former high school has a gay alliance and there are anti-bullying policies.
Progress is “a jagged line. There’s backlash, but sometimes it’s like a rubber band. And we emerge from that backlash, growing much further.”
In Colorado, bipartisan boost leads to inroads on equality
Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado, has seen his state rocket up the road on equality in the 10 years since the LGBTQ advocacy group was founded. In 2010, MAP ranked the state “fair”; now it is a “high” equality state.
One Colorado focuses on amplifying LGBTQ voices in all parts of the state in an effort to educate and engage, he said. “One of the most powerful lessons we learned is the impact of sharing our own experiences by coming out. It’s harder to hate someone you know or you love.”
The state is home to some high-profile groups that oppose LGBTQ rights, yet Colorado has notched many advancements, such as a conversion therapy ban and accurate ID documentation, notably through bipartisan efforts, Ramos said. In 2018, Coloradoans elected their first openly transgender legislator and the country’s first openly male gay governor.
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“The challenge has been that issues are hyperpoliticized,” Ramos said. “But for youths to experience less bullying should be a nonpartisan issue, for folks to access health care should be a nonpartisan issue.”
Ramos, who grew up in the rural town of Sterling, recalls coming out at age 13. It was one year after college student Matthew Shepard’s brutal slaying in 1998, a gruesome incident that cast an unnerving spotlight on hate crimes against LGBTQ people.
“When I think of my upbringing to where we are today in one of the most LGBTQ friendly states in the country, it’s very exciting,” he said. “We have been able to leverage the spirit of Colorado to come together to get things done – whether Democrat or Republican, with conservatives and with faith communities.”