It has been quite a roller-coaster year for the LGBT community, with some pretty high highs and some equally low lows. We saw a new president take office, and with it came stalling of the progress LGBT civil rights have made in recent years. That said, organizations like the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for Constitutional Rights have had our backs, filing lawsuits on behalf of LGBT citizens to preserve the hard-won protections we’ve fought for.
Worldwide, we saw progress on the marriage-equality front. Four countries — Malta, Germany, Australia and Austria — legalized marriage for same-sex couples, bringing the total number to 26 countries where “gay marriage” is now just considered “marriage.” In a sweet moment, Australian member of Parliament Tim Wilson proposed to his boyfriend, Ryan Bolger, on Dec. 4 from the House floor. Bolger’s resounding “yes” was recorded into the government transcript by Deputy Speaker Rob Mitchell.
By far, the most prevalent number of changes in law affects the transgender community. In March, SCOTUS agreed to hear the case of Gavin Grimm, a West Virginia transgender student suing the Gloucester County School Board over his bathroom access. The day before the SCOTUS hearing, Trump rescinded the Statement of Interest signed by President Obama with guidance for Title IX schools that receive federal funding to treat transgender students in line with their gender identity, on which Grimm’s case was based. Rescinding the Statement of Interest rendered the case mute and forced SCOTUS to send the case back to lower courts in the 11th hour.
The fight over transgender bathroom rights did not end there. A Seventh Circuit Court ruling in May held that Ashton Whitaker, a transgender student in Kenosha Unified School District in Wisconsin, had the right to use the bathroom corresponding to his gender identity. The basis of that case was not only Title IX but the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, and a three-judge panel unanimously ruled in Whitaker’s favor.
Then in July, President Trump announced (on Twitter no less) an intended policy to ban transgender members from serving in the military and signed the executive order on Aug. 25. The ban has been blocked as of Oct. 30, thanks to a suit brought by plaintiffs — current and aspiring service members who are transgender — citing the ban denied them the ability to serve equally and put them under threat of discharge. The presiding federal judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly cited in her ruling that the plaintiffs “are likely to succeed” in their due-process claims, stating that the government’s arguments “wither away under scrutiny.” As of now, the stay allows transgender service members to serve in the military while the case winds through the courts. And Trump has backed down.
In one of the most important cases of the year, SCOTUS agreed to hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, wherein bakery owner Jack Phillips has argued his right to religious freedom and free speech (through artistic expression) have been violated by the state of Colorado, which held Phillips discriminated against a gay couple when he refused to bake them a wedding cake. Justice Anthony Kennedy is being touted as the key vote, and based on the questions he asked during oral arguments at the beginning of December, experts aren’t quite sure which way he’ll lean. At times, he seemed in favor of the gay couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins. Kennedy pointed out that hanging a sign in a shop window stating that wedding cakes are for straight couples only is an affront to the gay community. But later, he showed disfavor at the State of Colorado’s seeming disregard for Phillips’ religious beliefs. A ruling won’t be handed down until closer to the court’s end of session in June, but we wait in hope that Kennedy will preserve decades of civil-rights precedent supporting anti-discrimination and public-accommodations laws.
In 2017, nine anti-LGBT bills were signed into law — including three laws allowing child-welfare organizations to turn away qualified LGBT parents seeking to adopt. On the flip side, several pro-LGBT bills became law: banning dangerous so-called “conversion therapy,” repealing heinous “gay-panic” defenses and simplifying the update of identity documents and other rights.
Thanks to advocate organizations and pushback from LGBT people, the business community, child-welfare organizations, faith leaders and allies, more than 94 percent of anti-LGBT bills proposed were defeated. We can expect that in 2018, we are going to see more of the same. In November, Massachusetts will be voting on a ballot measure to repeal its nondiscrimination law protecting trans people. In Texas, lawmakers introduced more than 30 anti-LGBT bills, making up nearly a quarter of all anti-LGBT bills nationwide. Despite huge outcry, two of them became law. One allows adoption and foster-care agencies to turn away prospective LGBT couples, single or divorced parents and interfaith parents, and the other law allows ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to discriminate against transgender riders — regardless of the fact that both companies opposed the measure and both have gender identity-inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
I must say that my favorite event of 2017 was the return of “Will & Grace.” In 1998, no one would have thought a TV show featuring two lead gay characters would become an international success. In the last decade, we’ve made such progress and while that progress is being eroded, the return of “Will & Grace” could not have come at a better time.
To say that it has been a topsy-turvy year is an understatement. We still have many fights to fight, including employment and housing discrimination and furthering rights for the transgender community. With a Trump-Pence White House, it may sometimes feel like we’re pushed back six(teen) steps but, as we slip off our 2017 shoes and don our 2018 footwear, we’ll continue to march forward, one day and one right at a time.
Angela D. Giampolo, principal of Giampolo Law Group, maintains offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and specializes in LGBT law, family law, business law, real-estate law and civil rights. Her website is www.giampololaw.com, and she maintains a blog at www.phillygaylawyer.com. Reach out to Angela with your legal questions at 215-645-2415 or [email protected]