by Lisa Keen
Keen News Service
(This report was previously published by the Keen News Service, which covers national political and legal news for LGBT news media organizations around the country.)
One might argue that 2019 was a pretty good year for LGBT people. An openly gay man rose to the top tier of a large field of Democratic presidential candidates. A second openly LGBT person was sworn into the United States Senate. A record number of openly LGBT candidates won office to Congress. Lesbian icon Ellen DeGeneres shared a box seat with former Republican President George W. Bush at a football game. And Republican President Donald Trump issued a statement to “celebrate LGBT Pride Month.”
Others might argue that 2019 was a year of looming and unresolved battles over the heart and soul of American democracy and the harbinger of uncertainty about the future for the political and legal movements for LGBT equality. However one assesses the year in LGBT news, here are some of the year’s most headline-grabbing news stories to consider.
|Mayor Pete Buttigieg
BUTTIGIEG SURGES TO THE TOP: Pete Buttigieg’s success with his long-shot bid to win the Democratic nomination for president could probably take up all 10 slots of any “LGBT Top Stories” list for 2019. He became not only the first openly gay person to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, he raised enough support to participate in the first official Democratic debate, quickly surged to a top five slot in a field of more than 20 viable candidates, and held onto to that position while candidates who were much better known fell away.
His success continued throughout the year, helped by an early staking out of a moderate position just as progressive candidates were taking heat for appealing for dramatic changes, such as Medicare for All. Buttigieg pitched “Medicare for All Who Want It,” spoke openly about how his religious faith informs his views, and proved to be a respectful but formidable contender in debate. By December, he held first place in Iowa polling, second place in New Hampshire polling, and fourth place in national polling.
But with success in any presidential bid comes additional scrutiny and challenge. In May, two Republican operatives tried to promote a false accusation that Buttigieg had sexually assaulted two men, but both of those men denied the claims. In October, he was criticized for being too straight-looking and derided as “Mary Pete.” And at year’s end, Buttigieg was still struggling to prove he could win support from African-American voters and fending off suggestions that his post-graduate work for a conservative management consulting firm, McKinsey, included work that led to the loss of jobs for many.
So far, he has astutely navigated a daunting landscape and blown through a wall that most LGBT people expected would block a path to the White House for any gay person in their lifetimes. Win or lose, he could well become 2020’s top story, too.
SUPREME COURT TACKLES TITLE VII: The U.S. Supreme Court in October heard oral arguments about whether existing federal law — Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — already prohibits discrimination in employment based on two things: sexual orientation and gender identity.
The court’s eventual ruling on each issue, expected by June, will have profound consequences for LGBT people everywhere in the U.S. And it could be a mixed outcome: The court could rule one way for sexual orientation and a different way for transgender status.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch articulated that he was “really close” to seeing how the law already protects each category, but he said he was worried about the “massive social upheaval” that might take place if the court rules for either. Because Gorsuch is seen as being part of the conservative five-person majority on the court, media attention riveted to him following oral argument. But even progressive Justice Sonia Sotomayor hinted she was concerned about what the court’s ruling might have on the “raging” bathroom issue.
Those who fear change will argue that a “No” from the Supreme Court on either or both questions will simply preserve the status quo. But that status quo prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s LGBT status in only 21 states and provides little likelihood of passage for the Equality Act that seeks to provide protection nationwide.
HOUSE IMPEACHES PRESIDENT TRUMP: The Democratically controlled House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings late last year against President Trump, unleashing a torrent of partisan fighting for the very soul of the country. The two charges are: 1. Trump abused the power of his office to pressure a foreign government, Ukraine, to announce that it was investigating a rival 2020 presidential contender (lead Democrat Joe Biden), and 2. that he obstructed Congress by deliberately interfering with the ability of the House to interview crucial witnesses and examine documents.
There were a few openly LGBT players during the proceedings, including openly gay Reps. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York) who serve on the key committees involved in the impeachment proceedings. And Stanford law professor Pam Karlan was a key witness before one committee, serving as an expert on constitutional law regarding impeachment.
The Republican-dominated Senate is expected, largely along party lines, to acquit the president. That much is known and essentially predictable. What remains to be seen is how voters will respond in November’s presidential election.
HHS SEEKS TO DENY HEALTH CARE: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced in May that it would “substantially revise” language in the Affordable Care Act to eliminate protections against discrimination based on gender identity in health care.
The announcement came just three days after HHS published a final rule that enabled health care providers to refuse to provide certain services by claiming they had religious or moral beliefs that compelled them to refuse.
Such “Denial of Care” rules have been primarily aimed against women who seek an abortion or emergency contraception, terminally ill patients wanting to accelerate a painful dying process, and LGBT people generally. But by year’s end, three different federal district judges ruled that the finalized regulations were unconstitutional.
RELIGIOUS STORM CLOUDS GATHER: The long-standing legal battle continues to escalate. Laws which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation are being continuously challenged by churches and business owners who claim the First Amendment to the Constitution gives them a religious liberty to violate those non-discrimination laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court dispensed with two such cases in 2019 (refusing to hear Aloha v. Cervelli and sending back Klein v. Oregon), but more have arrived. The latest is Fulton v. Philadelphia, which asks the high court to overturn a Third Circuit opinion that a local government can refuse funding to a Catholic-run foster care agency because the agency refuses to abide by a city ordinance that prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.
HATE CRIME NUMBERS HAUNT: At least 22 transgender people of color were murdered in 2019, a statistic that has haunted the LGBT community and drawn the notice of many Democratic presidential candidates.
It’s not that the number itself was so different than in previous years (which averaged 22 per year), noted the Human Rights Campaign in its now annual report on violence against transgender people. It’s that they are now seen to reflect “intersections of racism, sexism and transphobia” in the United States that is “sometimes ruthlessly endorsed and enforced by those at the highest level of our government,” said Alphonso David, HRC’s new president.
The Hate Crimes Statistics report filed annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed a 34 percent increase in the number of victims of anti-transgender crimes in 2018, compared to 2017. During that same time period, there was a nine percent increase in crimes against gay, lesbian, and bisexual victims, but a decrease in hate crimes victims overall.
The significance of these numbers is dependent in part on how well law enforcement agencies identify and report specific hate crimes. But there’s no denying that, if there is any inaccuracy in the reporting, the true incidence of hate crimes against LGBT people is likely higher and increasing every year.
SENATE CONFIRMS GAY MAN TO NINTH CIRCUIT: The U.S. Senate in December voted to confirm Patrick Bumatay, an openly gay prosecutor from San Diego, to a seat on the nation’s largest federal appeals court.
National LGBT legal groups said nothing, but Log Cabin Republicans hailed the appointment, noting that it makes Bumatay the “highest ranking LGBT jurist in the nation.” The only other openly gay person on a federal appeals court is Todd Hughes, who was confirmed to the Federal Circuit in 2013.
Meanwhile, the confirmation of Bumatay in December and a lesbian, Mary Rowland, to a U.S. District Court seat in Illinois, were overshadowed by confirmations of federal appeals court nominees vehemently opposed by LGBT groups, including Steven Menashi to the Second Circuit and Lawrence VanDyke to the Ninth.
TWO LGBT PRESIDENTIAL FORUMS: While LGBT issues were not an especially prominent topic during the nationally televised Democratic debates in 2019, there were two national presidential forums devoted to LGBT issues this year. Both involved Democratic candidates only, and one was nationally televised on CNN during prime time hours.
The first forum was live-streamed from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and most of the major Democratic candidates showed up. The CNN town hall in October was the first national television broadcast by a major media outlet of LGBT-specific discussion with presidential candidates. The latter was an opportunity for voters to hear how the candidates mostly agreed on a variety of LGBT issues and support equal rights and protection for LGBT people. It was also a chance for straight voters to see and hear from a wide diversity of LGBT audience members, asking their questions, expressing their concerns, and telling their stories.
TRUMP V. LGBT COMMUNITY: The Trump Administration has continued apace in its efforts to undermine rights and protections for LGBT people through the federal government. In 2019 alone, the Department of Defense was able to put the trans ban into effect while it is being challenged in court, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed rules to allow homeless shelters receiving federal funds to turn away transgender people.
In addition to HHS’s rules to allow health care providers to deny care to LGBT people, the Department of Justice took sides against LGBT people in important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the reach of employment protections under the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. The Department of Labor this year proposed a rule change to “clarify” that religious organizations could require employees “share” their religious beliefs, a move that LGBT legal activists say gives a green light to discrimination against LGBT people.
The list goes on and includes the departments of Education, Homeland Security, and State. It is a concerted effort to eliminate and/or diminish protections for LGBT people and it will almost certainly continue in 2020 — and beyond, should Trump be elected to a second term.
KATIE HILL FORCED OUT: Openly bisexual U.S. Rep. Katie Hill was a rising superstar among the first-term Democrats entering the newly-minted Democratic majority in the House. She was one of only 14 Democratic members of the House to be voted by colleagues to the House Democratic leadership team, and she was designated vice chair of the House Oversight committee which was helping with the impeachment investigation against President Trump.
But by October, a right-wing website targeted her with claims that she had sexual relationships with a former campaign staffer and a current Congressional staffer. The website illustrated its report with photos of Hill nude in private settings. And the House Committee on Ethics initiated an investigation into whether Hill had a prohibited relationship with a Congressional staffer. Hill denied the charge but resigned her seat within days, saying she believes the attack had been helped by her estranged and “abusive” husband and “because of the thousands of vile, threatening emails, texts, and calls that make me fear for my life and the lives of the people I care about.”
In an op-ed essay for the New York Times, Hill made clear that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not force her to resign but rather “told me I didn’t have to” resign. Hill said that, ultimately, she felt she needed to resign “for me, my family, my staff, my colleagues, my community.” But in her farewell speech on the floor of the House, Hill vowed, “We will not stand down. We will not be broken, We will not be silenced. We will rise, and we will make tomorrow better than today.”