Biden, White House condemn anti-LGBTQ laws in GOP-led states
WASHINGTON – Two decades after Republicans stoked fears of gay marriage to drive conservative voters to the polls, another fight is brewing over LGBTQ rights as President Joe Biden gears up for what is expected to be a brutal reelection campaign.
But this time, things are different. While George W. Bush and other Republicans campaigned in 2004 against granting same-sex couples the right to marry, Biden, a Democrat, is siding with those who advocate expanding or protecting the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
For weeks, Biden has spoken out against a tsunami of anti-LGBTQ legislation flowing from GOP-led states.
“What’s going on in Florida is, as my mother would say, ‘close to sinful,’” Biden said during an appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” last month.
He was referring to new state laws enacted by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led legislature that ban the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms and other proposals under consideration to roll back the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
For Biden, the decision to condemn attacks against LGBTQ Americans isn’t about politics but is instead a question of fairness and morality, White House aides insist. Biden has a long record of supporting gay rights – even if that meant disagreeing with President Barack Obama when he was vice president – and is regarded as the most LGBTQ-friendly president in history despite being a decades-long moderate.
Even so, Biden’s public criticism of anti-LGBTQ state laws is a likely prelude to the 2024 elections, when Republicans are expected to use issues like gender-affirming health care for transgender youth, transgender access to public restrooms and participation in school sports, and state bans on drag shows in an attempt to drive voters to the polls.
“By pushing the culture wars the way that they do, they almost always put the Democratic Party on the defensive,” said Andrew Proctor, an expert on the politics of LGBTQ issues at the University of Chicago. “And I think that this is playing out in a really similar fashion, where these bills are being introduced at the state level, and that’s forcing the Democratic Party to take these issues on when perhaps they might not want to.”
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Gay rights as a political weapon
From Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977 to Bush’s reliance on same-sex marriage to fire up voters in 2004, weaponizing gay rights for political gain has been an effective strategy for Republicans in the past.
Even many Democrats were uncomfortable with the issue of same-sex marriage back in 2004.
John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president at the time, took the same position as many others in his party – that marriage should be between a man and a woman but that states should be given the option of allowing civil unions, which provided some legal protections for same-sex couples but fell short of the full rights afforded to married heterosexuals.
Bush, who was running for a second term on a platform that emphasized national security, recognized the marriage issue’s potency as a political issue and sided with conservatives pushing for a constitutional amendment to declare marriage as a union between a man and woman.
Unlike DeSantis, who is expected to seek the GOP nomination for president and has made the culture wars the central issue of his soon-to-be-announced campaign, Bush allowed key operatives to push the marriage issue while he mostly emphasized what he called the “war on terror.” But he did weigh in occasionally on the same-sex marriage fight, even going as far as announcing support for a federal ban on gay marriage.
Bush defeated Kerry by just 2 percentage points, with some analysts crediting his narrow victory to the fight over marriage equality and others downplaying its significance in turning out conservative voters.
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Transgender rights are new wedge issue
With support for same-sex marriage now at an all-time high – 71% of Americans in a Gallup Poll last summer favored gay nuptials – transgender rights have now become the wedge issue that conservative Republicans are pushing heading into next year’s elections.
Nearly 500 bills targeting LGBTQ Americans have been introduced in state legislatures this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. More than 200 specifically target the transgender community.
Twenty-seven bills already have been signed into law in West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Utah, South Dakota, Indiana, Iowa, Arkansas, Idaho, Georgia and North Dakota. In Kentucky and Kansas, laws targeting transgender individuals were allowed to take effect after the legislature overrode gubernatorial vetoes.
Florida, in particular, has been at the forefront of the recent push to restrict rights of the LGBTQ community. DeSantis has used his opposition to transgender issues and other social issues to raise his profile as he prepares for his own bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Many Americans don’t know what it means to be transgender or are unfamiliar with the transgender community, and extremist politicians are using that to stoke fear and to score political points, said Ash Orr, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality.
It’s important to have allies in the Biden administration to help counter that narrative, Orr said.
Biden, who supported same-sex marriage before many other Democrats were on board, has also been out front attacking those who attack transgender Americans. He and other members of his administration have publicly condemned new anti-LGBTQ laws as cruel, dangerous and even immoral.
“Transgender people are some of the bravest Americans I know. But no person should have to be brave just to live in safety and dignity,” Biden said in a statement posted on his official @POTUS Twitter account on March 31 to mark International Transgender Day of Visibility.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, the first out gay woman to hold the post, has used the briefing room podium and her official Twitter account multiple times to condemn what she calls “shameful, hateful and dangerous attacks” by GOP lawmakers and others against LGTBQ people.
The administration’s campaign to protect LGBTQ rights isn’t limited to speaking out against the spate of new state laws. Biden has taken action on several fronts to shield the LGBTQ community.
In December, Biden signed legislation writing protections for same-sex marriage into federal law amid fears the Supreme Court might revisit its 2015 decision legalizing same-sex nuptials.
In his first week in office, Biden signed executive orders revoking a Trump-era ban on transgender individuals serving in the military and barring discrimination in the federal government on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. He also has appointed LGBTQ Americans in prominent positions throughout his administration.
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Can Biden influence gay rights debate?
By choosing to speak out publicly, Biden has the ability to influence the debate on LGBTQ rights, said David Stacy, the Human Right’s Campaign’s government affairs director.
“Obviously, there’s limits to that because when the president speaks out, there are some that don’t like what he says,” Stacy said. “But we think it’s helpful for the administration to be engaged in these fights. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”
While the Biden administration’s actions show that it cares about the LGBTQ community, “I also think they recognize it as a political issue,” said Annise Parker, former mayor of Houston and chief executive officer of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect LGBTQ people to all levels of government.
The attacks on LGBTQ Americans have “gotten to the point of political theater,” Parker said, citing DeSantis’ recent push to revoke the liquor license of a Miami hotel that hosted a Christmas-themed drag show in the presence of children.
“Of all of the myriad, really important issues going on in this country, and the Republicans want to ride that horse,” she said. “If I were Joe Biden, I would be talking about it as well.”
Yet while public attitudes have shifted sharply in support of gay rights over the past decade, many Americans remain conflicted over issues involving gender identity and transgender rights.
Fifty-eight percent of adults polled last summer by the Pew Research Center favored proposals requiring transgender athletes to compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth. Among Republicans, support for such proposals was 85%.
Sixty percent of those polled said a person’s gender is determined by their sex assigned at birth, a four-point increase in just one year.
Those numbers help explain why Republicans see potential political benefits from the flood of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
But is it a winning strategy?
Proctor, the LGBTQ expert at the University of Chicago, doesn’t think so.
“There are a lot of other issues right now facing the country that I think are probably much higher up on the minds of most Americans,” he said.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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