Joe Biden’s work for LGBT+ people is far, far from done as president reaches one-year mark

Joe Biden

It has been a full year since Joe Biden became president of the United States – and in that time, the outlook has changed dramatically for LGBT+ people. 

For four years, queer people in America faced endless political and legal attacks from the Trump administration. LGBT+ rights and protections were rolled back and a culture of fear was created. 

Needless to say, Joe Biden becoming president of the United States didn’t exactly change things overnight for LGBT+ people. Significant progress has been made in reversing some of those Trump-era attacks, and queer people in America have also benefited from other advances along the way – but there’s still a great deal of work to be done.

To mark one year of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ time in office, we asked some of America’s leading LGBT+ organisations and activists to reflect on where we are today. How significant have those advances in LGBT+ rights been and, crucially, is life actually improving for LGBT+ people under Biden? 

Joe Biden’s presidency is ‘a world of difference’ from Donald Trump’s

David Stacy is government affairs director at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), one of America’s most influential LGBT+ organisations. He says Biden’s presidency has been “a world of difference” from Trump’s time in office.

“We’ve seen progress on open trans military service, the implementation of the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision across the range of non-discrimination protections in the federal government, the creation of a working group to address the issue of anti-transgender violence,” he says. 

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He acknowledges that there’s “a lot more that needs to be done”, but he says initial progress one year since Biden’s inauguration has been strong. 

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, makes the point that the Biden administration has worked with LGBT+ people who have experienced discrimination in order to enact meaningful change. 

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks at a meeting with governors and mayors about the administration’s infrastructure bill, at the White House on 14 July 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty)

“The Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have all been very clear with LGBTQ folks that they are accepting complaints of discrimination, that they will investigate those experiences of discrimination, and they will work with people to come to a remedy,” she says.

“That’s a radical change from where we were during the Trump administration where LGBTQ folks were being estranged from agencies and their experiences were not being taken seriously.

“Additionally, the [Biden] administration has really been outspoken about LGBTQ rights and it’s so important for LGBTQ people, particularly young people, to hear from their government that they matter, that their rights matter, and that the administration is committed to seeing progress and making progress for them.” 

Has the Biden administration done enough to tackle anti-trans violence? 

Progress has undoubtedly been made, but many LGBT+ Americans still live their lives with the threat of violence and discrimination hanging over them. For trans people, particularly trans women of colour, the right to safety is far from a guarantee. Each year, more and more trans women are killed in violent circumstances. The situation appears to be getting worse rather than better – 2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans people. Is the Biden administration doing enough? 

Warbelow says there’s “no easy answer or solution” to ending the epidemic of violence agains trans women of colour. She notes that the Biden administration has put together a “cross-agency working group” that consults on a regular basis with trans people to “identify the critical needs of the community”. That working group was assembled following a recommendation from the Human Rights Campaign and other organisations. 

There’s no magic wand that can be waved to fix this tomorrow.

“There are multiple factors as to why trans women of colour are experiencing fatal violence,” Warbelow says. “It includes overrepresentation in poverty, it includes housing insecurity, inadequate job training, discrimination in education. The Biden administration is taking steps to address all of these areas, but there’s no magic wand that can be waved to fix this tomorrow. 

“It really is going to take a longterm dedication to changing a variety of systems as well as adopting programming and funding streams targeting specifically the needs of transgender women before we’re going to see this turnaround in a significant way.” 

Joe Biden is working to advance LGBT+ rights across the world 

It’s also true that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t just responsible for advancing LGBT+ rights in the United States – as arguably the world’s most powerful leaders, they have a duty to protect queer people across the globe, Stacy says. He points out that the Biden administration has taken steps in its first year to improve the outlook for LGBT+ people outside of America. 

 Kamala Harris is sworn as U.S. Vice President.
Kamala Harris is sworn as U.S. Vice President. (Alex Wong/Getty)

“The Trump administration really did nothing to advance LGBTQ equality around the globe, notwithstanding their press release around decriminalisation that never really produced any results and was never really robust in any sense of the word,” Stacy says. “This administration has made it a priority – we see diplomats raising these issues around the globe, both publicly and privately. We see a renewed commitment to the Global Equality Fund and international institutions, and the United States has rejoined the Human Rights Council.”

Stacy says the Biden administration is “following in the footsteps” of the Obama administration when it comes to global LGBT+ rights. 

We definitely believe that they are committed to these issues, and believe that both in their hearts as well as seeing it as a political imperative.

“We’ve seen that the Trump administration had said they would appoint a special envoy at the State Department to work on LGBTQI issues and failed to do so. We now have an LGBTQI envoy in place in Jessica Stern, so we have a person in the State Department every day coming to work focused on these issues with the gravitas to help move the department.”

Biden has appointed LGBT+ people in leadership positions 

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO and president of GLAAD, agrees that strong progress has been made. She points to their Biden accountability tracker, which keeps a close eye on the administration’s work on LGBT+ rights, as proof that he is committed to improving the lives of LGBT+ people in America.

“The Biden administration has shown unprecedented commitment to including, accepting and protecting LGBTQ+ Americans,” Ellis says. “It’s remarkable to see the robust, 180 turnaround from the previous administration’s 200+ attacks. Not only has the administration reversed those discriminatory rollbacks, it has worked to expand protection.”

The work towards equality is continuing and expanding.

Ellis praises Biden for having struck down Trump’s discriminatory trans military ban, among a series of other advances.

“The work towards equality is continuing and expanding. The White House hosts listening sessions with LGBTQ people to help inform policy. The president has appointed numerous LGBTQ people who can ensure our community’s needs are heard and understood and who can apply that empathy and openness to solutions for all communities in need of better representation. He’s appointed out LGBTQ judges to improve our chances at equal justice under law. These are huge, historic moves, and allyship in action.” 

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks during a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on 1 June 2021.(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty)

Ellis says Biden “works to build up our community, to defend, protect and celebrate us” – and he has actively included LGBT+ people in senior leadership roles.

“Just knowing we don’t have to worry about waking up to an attack against us from the highest levels of government improved our days and outlook,” Ellis says. “We have a better chance at accessing healthcare and housing and jobs without fear that our sexual orientation or gender identity can be used against us.”

However, there are still “big problems” that need to be tackled, Ellis says. She notes that state legislatures have targeted LGBT+ people in terrifying ways over the last year.

“The president is a strong ally, but he cannot do this work alone,” Ellis says. “We need the Senate to reform its archaic rules that block progress and for the president to continue to educate voters about what’s at stake and who or what is in the way.”

Joe Biden needs to focus on tangible change – ‘visibility’ isn’t enough

Not everybody agrees with those positive assessments of Joe Biden’s track record. Gavin Grimm is a prominent trans activist who ended up taking a case to the Supreme Court when his school banned him from using the correct bathroom. He’s not impressed with Biden’s performance – in fact, he says his actions amount to little more than “lip service”.

“Biden needs to focus on improving the actual lives of LGBT+ people rather than shows of ‘visibility’ and other lip service that doesn’t actually change the material reality of most trans people in America,” Grimm says.

“Trans people face disproportionate amounts of harm, violence, homelessness, policing, poverty, mental and physical illness, lack of access to healthcare, etc. Until those things are taken seriously, no amount of rainbow lights on the White House will ever be sufficient.”

He says Biden has done “hardly anything meaningful” to improve LGBT+ life in America or elsewhere since he took office last year.

“At our southern border and as we left the Middle East the Biden administration left countless LGBT+ refugees to suffer. There have been countless anti trans bills and legislation passed on state levels that Biden has signalled no internet in addressing meaningfully. Black trans people face an especially large share of the violence and poverty which Biden has done nothing to address. Biden has not decriminalised sex work, in fact, he has made it harder for sex workers who are often LGBT+ to survive.

“He has made a lot of promises that he hasn’t delivered on and he’s done a lot of flashy shows of ‘visibility’ while leaving transgender Americans to be denied healthcare, banned from school facilities, sports teams and appropriate facilities and medical treatment while incarcerated. He has done nothing to address the epidemic of violence against transgender Americans. He has done nothing to address the rates of homelessness among LGBT+ youth and LGBT+ populations in general. He has done nothing to combat conversion therapy.”

Grimm says Biden has shown that he is willing to “compromise” on LGBT+ issues, leaving queer people “out in the cold”. Like many other LGBT+ people in America, Grimm is not holding out hope for change. Biden might be an improvement on Trump, but that still doesn’t mean life is improving for queer people in meaningful, tangible ways.

Trans prisoners still face cruel injustices

Chris Johnson is White House reporter with the Washington Blade, an LGBT+ focused news outlet. He agrees with Ellis, Warbelow and Stacy that things have improved for LGBT+ people under Biden – however, he says the extent of that improvement “depends on the individual circumstances of an LGBTQ person”.

He is keen to point out that the issues facing LGBT+ people aren’t always specific to the community. Like many others, queer Americans are dealing with big issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, inflation and challenges to voting rights.

Still, things have improved since Trump’s time in the Oval Office.

“Much of the policy under Trump, most prominently the transgender military ban, has been reversed,” Johnson. says. “The executive order signed on day one against anti-LGBTQ discrimination gave the US Supreme Court ruling in Bostock under Trump some needed teeth. But some policy remains on the books, including a directive from the Bureau of Prisons placing transgender people in incarceration consistent with their gender identity.

“So things are better for you if you’re a transgender woman in the military, but for a transgender woman in prison, not so much.”

One year on, one thing is clear: things are improving for LGBT+ people all the time. What remains to be seen is how those legal changes actually translate into improvements to the quality of life of queer folk everywhere.

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