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The Top 10 LGBTQ Stories of 2020

Politics, a pandemic, and protests change everything.

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In 2020, the nation faced two existential threats: an out-of-control coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people in the U.S. in less than 12 months, and an erratic, self-obsessed Republican president who held campaign rallies without masks and withheld pandemic relief funding from states with Democractic governors. 

And while both of these topics dominated the news throughout 2020, there were some LGBTQ-specific events that stood out. Here is our lineup of 2020’s Top Ten LGBTQ news stories:

10. TRUMP NAMES GAY MAN TO CABINET-LEVEL POSITION

Richard Grenell

President Trump named Richard Grenell, an openly gay man and Republican activist, as the nation’s acting Director of National Intelligence on February 20. The temporary appointment made Grenell, who had been serving as ambassador to Germany, the first openly gay person to serve in a cabinet-level position.

Trump announced the appointment in a Twitter post on February 19, between posts about admiring the long line of people waiting to see him at a campaign rally in Arizona. The appointment did not require Senate confirmation, and the White House indicated the president would appoint a “permanent nominee” as soon as March 11. However, Grenell stayed on in the post until late May.

The appointment was quickly criticized by a wide range of people who said Grenell had no qualifications or experience to justify the appointment to such a high position. Others suggested the existing acting Director of National Intelligence was being ousted over Trump’s dismay over a classified briefing the Director of National Intelligence office gave to the House Intelligence Committee. That briefing reportedly told lawmakers that Russia was trying to interfere in the 2020 elections in support of Trump.  

Grenell continued to serve as ambassador to Germany while holding the Director of National Intelligence title. After his stint ended, he also left the ambassador post so he could begin organizing LGBTQ support for Trump’s re-election.

9. AN EXPANDED CONGRESSIONAL CAUCUS

Ritchie Torres (l) and Mondaire Jones

Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, two Black gay men, won U.S. House seats in November, raising the number of openly LGBTQ people in the U.S. Congress to 11. They are the first Black LGBTQ members of Congress, and their first weeks preparing for service indicate they are likely to make a significant impact.

Jones, who was elected to New York’s 17th Congressional District seat, worked under then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to vet nominees for federal court seats. He made history again when other first-term Democratic members of the U.S. House elected him to represent them at the weekly Democratic leadership meetings. He was also selected to be part of a council that advises House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on House committee appointments. On December 18, Pelosi announced that Jones would be appointed to the House Judiciary Committee. 

Torres spent the last seven years representing the Bronx on the New York City Council, where his work focused on helping to ease housing and other problems for people with low incomes. After beating out a large field of contenders for the Democratic nomination, he won the general election in November for New York City’s 15th Congressional District seat. Torres, who lived in public housing as a child, told the New York Post that his priority would be “to fight for full federal funding for public housing.” Speaker Pelosi announced on December 17 that Torres would be the only first-term member to be appointed to the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees all components of the nation’s housing and financial-services sectors.

8. BUTTIGIEG BECOMES A PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDER 

Pete Buttigieg

At the end of January 2020, Pete Buttigieg was in an unprecedented position for an openly gay presidential contender: He was polling second in a New York Times poll of likely voters in Iowa just days ahead of the nation’s first presidential primary contest. As a gay man, Buttigieg stood out in the first few months of his campaign last year, earning him a surge of media attention that his impressive mayoral résumé might not have otherwise inspired. As Buttigieg demonstrated his unmatched ability to thoughtfully respond to policy questions, his sexual orientation almost became a non-issue.

Polling indicated Buttigieg was winning over a wide range of supporters, with polls ranking him as the second-most intelligent candidate (behind U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren). His military service and his willingness to share his religious beliefs also helped his polling numbers. Buttigieg came in first place in Iowa with 26.2 percent of the vote, a tenth of a point ahead of second-place U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. In New Hampshire, he came in second behind Sanders.

His success quickly generated attacks from the likes of right-wing talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who told listeners he thought Democrats were probably worried that one of their front-runners was “a gay guy” who “loves to kiss his husband on the debate stage.” 

In Nevada, Buttigieg fell to third place behind former Vice President Joe Biden (in second) and Sanders (in first). When Biden won the South Carolina primary, Buttigieg came in fourth with only eight percent of the vote, and exit polling indicated he had won less than three percent of the votes among Black Americans—a critical constituency for a Democratic presidential victory. Two days before Super Tuesday, Buttigieg acknowledged that “the path has narrowed to a close for our candidacy,” and withdrew from the race. He quickly endorsed Biden and was given a high-profile speaking slot on the last night of the Democratic National Convention.

LGBTQ Victory Fund President and former Houston Mayor Annise Parker called Buttigieg’s campaign for the Democratic nomination “a revolution in American politics, forever transforming what is possible for an LGBTQ candidate and making it clear that America will elect an openly LGBTQ president.”

7. BUTTIGIEG NAMED TO BIDEN’S CABINET

Pete Buttigieg (l) and Joe Biden

Following Joe Biden’s victory, there was much anticipation about the possibility of an important appointment for Pete Buttigieg. On December 16, Biden held a special news conference to announce that Buttigieg would become his Secretary of Transportation. It marked the first time an openly LGBTQ person has been appointed to a full-fledged cabinet seat. If confirmed, 38-year-old Buttigieg will be the youngest person in Biden’s cabinet. 

“The Biden-Harris cabinet will be an historic cabinet, a cabinet that looks like America, a cabinet that taps into the best of America, a cabinet that is opening doors and breaking down barriers and accessing the full range of talent,” Biden said in his announcement. He called Buttigieg “one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet” and “a policy wonk with a big heart.” He also noted that Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, “has become a close friend of Jill’s and mine.”

Buttigieg thanked Biden for the appointment and acknowledged the historic importance of his appointment as an openly gay man. “I’m mindful that the eyes of history are on this appointment, knowing that this is the first time an American president has ever sent an openly LGBTQ cabinet member to the Senate for confirmation,” Buttigieg said. “I can remember watching the news, 17 years old in Indiana, seeing a story about an appointee of President Clinton [who was] attacked and denied a vote in the Senate because he was gay.” He was referring to James Hormel, who Clinton appointed to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg in 1987.

Buttigieg’s appointment must now go before the U.S. Senate for confirmation. The Department of Transportation oversees the safety and efficiency of the nation’s transportation systems, including the airlines, railways, public transit, highways, maritime shipping, and oil pipelines. His nomination will go before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, currently headed by Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker’s appointment could soon end if Democrats win both of Georgia’s Senate seats in the January 5 runoff.

6. SUPREME COURT TACKLES LGBTQ DISCRIMINATION

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review a lower court decision that prohibited a Catholic foster-care agency from discriminating against same-sex couples. It was troubling news for LGBTQ legal activists because the conflict had been a long-standing one with implications beyond church-run agencies. A new ruling could also favor businesses who have religious objections to serving same-sex couples.

The oral argument was held November 4, one day after the presidential election, when it was not yet clear whether Democrat Joe Biden had unseated Trump. And it was only the third day that the court’s newest member, Amy Coney Barrett, was taking part in oral arguments. The presidential election and Barrett’s quick confirmation to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat overshadowed the uneventful oral-argument session. 

Fulton v. Philadelphia was the latest in a long line of lawsuits aimed at allowing businesses to discriminate based on their anti-gay religious beliefs. Opponents of such “religious exemptions” say people and businesses have a First Amendment right to exercise of their religious beliefs, but if they voluntarily operate in the public arena they must abide by laws governing the public, including laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

At year’s end, the Supreme Court had not yet issued its opinion, but the result, said LGBTQ legal activists, could have far-reaching consequences for the LGBTQ community.

5. SUPREME COURT RULES FOR LGBTQ EMPLOYMENT PROTECTIONS

In what was perhaps the most stunning U.S. Supreme Court victory for LGBTQ people, the nation’s highest court announced a 6-to-3 decision on June 15 that holds a federal Civil Rights Act law barring discrimination “on the basis of sex” in employment also bars discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender status.” The court’s decision came in one 33-page opinion that consolidated three cases under Bostock v. Clayton County. In words that will no doubt be highlighted for years to come, Justice Neil Gorsuch (a Trump appointee who replaced the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia) wrote:

“Ours is a society of written laws. Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”

“This is a huge victory not just for LGBTQ people, but for our country,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter. “Today’s decision will be remembered as a watershed in the history of LGBTQ rights, even as our country continues to grapple with the brutal legacy of racism.”

The 6-to-3 decision put Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on the side of the court’s more progressive four justices. And statistically speaking, it established Roberts and Gorsuch as moderates on issues relating to LGBTQ-specific cases.

4. RUTH BADER GINSBURG DIES

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September. The 87-year-old legal giant succumbed following a years-long struggle against pancreatic cancer. Best known for her historic work on behalf of securing equal rights for women, she was also a steadfast supporter of equal rights for other groups, including LGBTQ people.

“While Justice [Anthony] Kennedy authored the most important LGBT-rights decisions, Justice Ginsburg was the most important voice for LGBT people on the Court,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Ginsburg had the most consistently pro-LGBTQ record of any justice on the bench. In the 15 LGBTQ-related decisions before the U.S. Supreme Court during her 27 years there, Ginsburg voted in favor of equal rights for LGBTQ people 13 times. She provided the pivotal fifth vote in several LGBTQ victories, including Hollingsworth v. Perry, which led to California allowing same-sex couples to marry in 2013, and U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act that same year. She was also the fifth vote on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which struck down state bans on marriage for same-sex couples. And in June of this year, she was one of six justices to rule, in Bostock v. Clayton County, that the language in Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment “on the basis of sex,” also covers discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Within days of Ginsburg’s death, President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a federal appeals judge who LGBTQ groups had adamantly opposed for a Seventh Circuit seat, claiming that her “religiously infused moral beliefs would inform her judicial decision-making.” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rushed through Barrett’s confirmation, and the Senate confirmed her nomination by a 52-to-48 party-line vote.

3. RACIAL RECKONING, AND A POWERFUL MOVEMENT

Following the highly publicized killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in May, the Black Lives Matter movement became a major political force. “Black Lives Matter” became a chant for over 20 million Americans who participated in protests in cities large and small. The New York Times reported in July that “Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. History.”

Black Lives Matter was started in 2013 by three Black women (two of whom identify as queer) who organized peaceful protests following a steady stream of incidents involving white police officers senselessly killing unarmed Black men. Queer co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullers, along with ally Opal Tometi, adopted a mission statement that also embraced “the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.”

2. A NEW PRESIDENT IS ELECTED

Joe Biden

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden won the popular vote for president on November 3 and the Electoral College vote on December 14. 

Exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool found that 61 percent of surveyed voters who identified as LGBTQ said they voted for Biden, while 28 percent voted for Trump. (The data was based on approximately 1,100 self-identified LGBTQ voters, or seven percent of 15,590 voters.) While Trump’s overall LGBTQ support was twice what it was in 2016, voting data from precincts with heavily LGBTQ populations suggested LGBTQ voters set new records in their support for Biden and new lows for Trump. Heavily LGBTQ precincts in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco and in the popular LGBTQ vacation town of Provincetown showed over 91 percent of voters supporting the Democratic ticket, with support for Trump running in the single digits. In the heavily LGBTQ town of Wilton Manor, Florida, support for Biden ran between 79 and 82 percent; Trump support there fell to between 17 and 19 percent. In five heavily LGBTQ neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Biden won between 84 and 92 percent of the vote. This higher percentage of support for Biden was supported by a survey of 800 LGBTQ voters just after the election. That survey, commissioned by the national LGBTQ media group GLAAD, found that 81 percent of LGBTQ voters supported Biden and 14 percent supported Trump. 

Regardless of the margins, the LGBTQ community is expected to fare much better under Biden than it has under Trump.

1. COVID-19 CHANGED EVERYTHING

A virulent new coronavirus emerged in late 2019 and was dubbed COVID-19 (or “Corona Virus Disease first identified in 2019”). The virus emerged from China, and by March there were enough cases springing up around the United States that public health officials called for immediate shutdowns of schools, businesses, restaurants, and public gatherings of all types.

As the pandemic continued through the summer, many LGBTQ bars and restaurants began to close permanently. The loss of revenue from the advertising those businesses would typically buy from local LGBTQ newspapers soon caused many LGBTQ newspapers to cut back on staff and publish only online.

The June Pride parades and celebrations were also canceled in most cities, including New York City, abruptly cutting off a prime revenue-producing event for many LGBTQ organizations. CenterLink, a national coalition of LGBTQ community centers, said in May that over half its members were having to cancel fundraising events and that one-third expected they would have to shut down operations within two months because of COVID.

The Trevor Project, a national group that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth, said it has seen a surge in young people seeking help during the pandemic. A poll of 800 LGBTQ people in November found that 54 percent of LGBTQ voters considered the COVID-19 response the most important issue in deciding how to vote. Thirty-six percent of the respondents said a close friend or family member had tested positive for COVID, 29 percent lost their job or saw a reduction in work, 11 percent had to change their living arrangements, and 10 percent had a close friend or family member who died from COVID-19.

A report from the Human Rights Campaign estimated that more than five million LGBTQ people work in industries “heavily impacted by the COVID-19 epidemic,” such as restaurants, hospitals, schools, and retail. A report from the National LGBT Cancer Network indicated that the LGBTQ community uses tobacco at rates 50 percent higher than the general population, making them particularly vulnerable to the respiratory virus. And a study by the Movement Advancement Project found that almost half of the 47 nonprofit LGBTQ organizations surveyed had to reduce their 2020 budgets by an average of 17 percent.

In late December, there was growing concern about a new strain of the virus (called the S gene variant) in the United Kingdom that appeared to be spreading even more easily. But several nations, including the UK and the United States, have begun vaccinating citizens with vaccines that experts believe will still be effective in stopping multiple strains of the virus. And with the inauguration of a new president on January 20, many expect the White House to at last make fighting the pandemic its top priority.

© 2020 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

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Lisa Keen

From the White House, Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court to state ballot battles, right-wing tactics, and federal court cases around the country, Keen News Service aims to bring readers reliable information about significant news developments–and deliver that information in a way that is both coherent and in context.

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