Sarah McBride was watching CNN on mute at her parents’ house on Nov. 7 when suddenly the screen flashed a message she’d been longing to see: her friend and fellow Delawarian, Joe Biden, had just been declared the next president of the United States.
“I felt, first and foremost, a huge sense of relief,” said McBride, who in years past had worked for Biden’s late son, Beau Biden. “Finally, a leader with compassion for all people.”
Days before, McBride had celebrated her own victory. On Election Night, she made history as the first transgender woman state senator, representing Delaware’s First State Senate District as America’s newest LGBTQ lawmaker.
McBride and other LGBTQ leaders are hopeful Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who hails from the gay history-rich San Francisco Bay Area, represent a chance for them to be accepted and protected after four years of their civil rights being threatened by President Donald Trump’s administration.
Over the past four years, anti-LGBTQ actions by the current leadership have included the Department of Labor granting contractor’s the right to ignore federal anti-discrimination laws if they conflict with religious beliefs, the Department of Defense banning trans individuals from serving in the military and the Department of Education drastically scaling back civil rights protections for LGBTQ students.
And while then-candidate Trump made a point of unfurling a rainbow flag during a fall 2016 campaign stop in Colorado, as president he has appointed many conservative judges that many LGBTQ leaders say could undo civil rights gains and reverse health care protections.
Activists expect Biden not only to use executive orders to roll back a range of anti-LGBTQ policies enacted by Trump, but also appoint an LGBTQ leader to his cabinet and choose openly LGBTQ judges.
Biden himself has said he plans within the first 100 days of his presidency to push for the passage of the Equality Act, which aims to extend federal protections in the areas of housing, education, credit and services to the LGBTQ population. That’s critical, activists say, since only 21 states have anti-discrimination laws on the books.
If the Equality Act remains stymied in a Republican-led Senate, activists say Biden should ensure the implementation of a landmark Supreme Court decision handed down in June that protects employees against discrimination based on sexual identity. The Justice Department has yet to enforce the law.
“We have seen in recent years the use of fear, and nothing but fear, to promote an ideology of exclusion, but that’s not working anymore,” said Alphonso David, president of the Humans Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
The organization recently released its Blueprint for Positive Change, which includes 85 policy recommendations for the incoming administration, such as establishing an interagency group to address anti-LGBTQ violence, as well as prohibiting the practice of conversion therapy.
David points to the success of newly elected LGBTQ politicians such as McBride as proof that “equality is a winning issue” with voters. He also notes that a range of polls show that millions of Americans on both sides of the political aisle increasingly support issues important to the LGBTQ community — suggesting that in some cases the electorate is more progressive than lawmakers.
Last year, a Pew Research Center poll showed that three in five Americans supported same-sex marriage, up from half that in 2004. That includes 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, or double the amount from 2004. A similar poll by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that among white Republican men over 50 who liked Trump, 52% said nondiscrimination laws should apply to LGBTQ people.
Many Republicans support equality for LGBTQ Americans
“There are many third-rail issues for Republicans, but LGBTQ rights isn’t one of them,” said Annise Parker, a former mayor of Houston and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that works to increase the number of LGBTQ politicians.
But GOP lawmakers haven’t taken note, Parker said, adding that she was “astounded that the Republican party, the party of less government and political freedom, has over the last 20 years made LGBTQ rights a partisan issue. It’s not, and voters know it.”
This past Election Day, more than 300 LGBTQ candidates were on the ballot across the country, and roughly two-thirds won, says Parker. These include Mauree Turner, a Black Muslim who identifies as non-binary, who won a seat in Oklahoma’s state Legislature, and Stephanie Byers, a trans Native American, who is now part of the Kansas state House of Representatives.
Parker said such victories spotlight the fact that local races are less about identity politics and “all about simply running good campaigns that show that you are part of the community and simply want to help.”
That’s especially true now as the coronavirus pandemic rages and the economy worsens. To date, 250,000 Americans have died from complications of COVID-19, and nearly 12 million have tested positive, with both deaths and cases spiking in recent weeks from coast to coast. Of the 20 million Americans receiving unemployment, half are set to lose those benefits by the end of 2020.
In a new post-election poll commissioned by GLAAD, a non-governmental group that monitors cultural representations of gay Americans, LGBTQ voters overwhelmingly based their vote, which was largely for Democratic candidates, on the administration’s COVID-19 response. Healthcare and racial justice matters came next, followed by LGBTQ equality.
On the subject of COVID-19, approximately a third of respondents said they had experienced mental health issues; had a close friend or family member who had tested positive; and had lost a job or had their work hours reduced.
As for the election result itself, two-thirds said Biden’s win made them feel optimistic for the future. But a majority of respondents expressed concern that a conservative Supreme Court could severely impact progress on issues such as marriage equality, abortion rights and employment protections.
“With this Supreme Court being packed with conservative judges, it is concerning to say the least,” says Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, whose Trump Accountability Project indicates the president “attacked the LGBTQ community 181 times since he took office, or about once a week.”
Ellis is concerned religious rights will be used by the Supreme Court as a way to rule against LGBTQ Americans’ civil rights. She pointed to Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case currently before the Supreme Court involving a city agency that denied LGBTQ couples the ability to serve as foster parents on the grounds of religious beliefs. LGBTQ activists have expressed concern that the conservative justices will rule in favor of religious belief exemptions.
LGBTQ progress often rooted at local level
While Biden’s victory may bring relief from a feeling of assault over the past four years, it is ultimately at the local level that most progress will continue to be made, says Marc Stein, a historian at San Francisco State University and author of “The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History.”
“Over the decades, there have been periods with some national gains, but often when there’s not much help coming from the federal level you see an intensive fight for rights in cities and states, which then sometimes spark national reaction,” he says.
Stein notes that a small conservative New York state town in which he used to live recently elected a gay men to public office. “That is extraordinary to me, and speaks to a reason for hope,” he says.
But, Stein adds, even allowing for the much-rumored inclusion of Pete Buttigieg, a former 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful who campaigned with his husband by his side, in Biden’s cabinet, proportional representation for the LGBTQ community has not been reached.
Although 5% of the United State population identifies as LGBTQ, according to a Gallup survey, roughly 20% of American adults under the age of 40 identify as LGBTQ, according to GLAAD.
“We’ve got around 2% of Senators and members ofCongress, and even if it’s hard to truly count the LGBTQ population in America, that’s still low,” Stein said. “The key will be for local LGBTQ candidates to keep pushing forward, presenting themselves, as the late Harvey Milk did in San Francisco, as just another member of the community who really wants to work hard to make things better for all.”
That’s precisely the plan McBride, 29, aims to execute when she officially takes on her duties as Delaware’s new state senator.
“To ensure there’s more diversity at the table in the future, I need to simply do the best job I can for my constituents,” said McBride, who formerly was the spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign.
Although she has notched a series of transgender firsts — first trans speaker at a political convention when she addressed Democrats in 2016, first trans White House staffer when she interned for President Barack Obama — McBride, who came out as transgender while at American University in Washington, D.C., shrugs off her pioneer status.
“I didn’t run to make history and headlines, I ran to make a difference,” she said. “But certainly I’m mindful that my election could send a powerful message to a young person who is struggling, one that says our democracy is big enough for them, too.”
McBride is optimistic that a Biden presidency will prove fruitful for the LGBTQ community. He made a pointed nod to those Americans in his acceptance speech on Nov. 7, noting that his victory came thanks to voters who were “Young, old. Urban, suburban, and rural. Gay, straight, transgender.” Harris has also expressed support for greater civil rights for LGBTQ Americans.
While Biden made headlines in 2012 for coming out in support of gay marriage before Obama, McBride says Biden’s commitment to the community now comes from a deeper place — his enduring love for his eldest son, Beau Biden, who served in Iraq and later became Delaware’s attorney general. In 2010, he was admitted to the hospital after complaining of a headache. He developed brain cancer and died in 2015 at age 46.
“Beau was passionate about trans rights and actively supported the state’s gender identity nondiscrimination bill,” McBride says of her onetime boss.
“After Beau died, Joe Biden’s passion and commitment deepened,” McBride said. “In many ways, Joe sees the work he’s doing now as a continuation of Beau’s legacy.”