The Year in Review: 2023

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It was a bad year to be queer or trans in America. There are more people identifying as LGBTQ+ in the U.S. than ever, but there is also an unprecedented level of homophobia, transphobia and outright hate being promulgated against the community. It was so bad, that for the first time in its more than 40-year history, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) officially declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. on June 6. Citing the unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ+ laws introduced in 2023, HRC declared an “imminent threat to the health and safety of LGBTQ+ people and families nationwide.” 

More than 500 bills targeting LGBTQ+ people, mostly put forward in GOP-led state legislatures or by GOP representatives in legislatures like Pennsylvania and New Jersey which are Democrat-led, were introduced in 2023, according to the American Civil Liberties Union/ACLU. According to an NBC News analysis of the ACLU’s data, 75 of those bills became law.

NBC’s analysis states: “So far this year, 75 bills have become law across 23 states, including restrictions on gender-affirming care, school sports, school instruction, drag and more.”

Of those laws, 21 restrict gender-affirming care for minors and 11 ban students from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identities. Another 10 laws limit classroom instruction on LGBTQ+ issues and/or the use of pronouns within school that don’t align with a person’s birth sex. Eight laws limit which restrooms trans people can use in schools or other publicly owned buildings. NBC notes other laws “restrict drag performances in front of minors, define a person’s sex in state law as that which was assigned at birth, and create additional barriers for trans people to change the sex on their birth certificates, among other measures.”

In addition to these laws, in a 6-3 decision on the last day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022-2023 session in June, the court ruled in favor of legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. As PGN reported in December 2022, when the SCOTUS heard the case of web designer Lori Smith in 303 Creative LLC v. Aubrey Elenis, the case pivoted on whether First Amendment free speech protections in fact allow anti-LGBTQ+ businesses a constitutional right to violate civil rights laws and violate the civil liberties of lesbian and gay couples. 

The ruling was a major victory for business owners who claim to oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons. The conservative majority asserted that Colorado cannot enforce the state’s anti-discrimination law against an evangelical Christian website designer who does not want to create wedding websites for same-sex couples because doing so would violate her First Amendment right to free speech.

In a blistering 38-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor detailed the long, fraught history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and noted a “nationwide rise in anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination” calling it “heartbreaking.” 

Sotomayor accused her conservative colleagues of allowing businesses the right “to refuse to serve members of a protected class” for the first time in its history, adding that “the immediate, symbolic effect of the decision is to mark gays and lesbians for second-class status.”

The laws and the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from GOP politicians created a dangerous climate in which hate crimes against LGBTQ+ Americans have never been so rampant.

According to the FBI’s annual crime report released in October, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people have risen significantly — a 19% rise in 2022 over 2021. Hate crimes motivated by an anti-transgender bias rose more than 35%. The number of reported hate crimes is the highest since the FBI began tracking such crimes in 1991. 

Hate crimes include everything from threats to slurs to physical attacks. More than 20% of all hate crimes are now motivated by sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. In July, Philadanco dancer and Philadelphia native O’Shae Sibley was stabbed to death in Brooklyn by a teenager in an alleged hate crime. 

In 2023, the Republican Party made anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric a focal point of party policy in both Congress and the 2024 presidential race. With five GOP candidates remaining in the race to unseat President Biden, the most pro-LGBTQ+ president in history, the “culture wars” dynamic has dominated, as anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are welcomed by both the MAGA base and the coveted demographic of more moderate white suburban voters both parties are keen to lure as they could determine the 2024 winner.

Much-indicted Donald Trump, the most anti-LGBTQ+ president in U.S. history, leads the GOP field. As one of Trump’s indictments documented in August, he tried to steal Pennsylvania’s votes

Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis spent 2023 building his political brand on his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, policy and persona. DeSantis rose to national prominence through a series of extremist policies, which President Biden has referred to as “hateful.” It was DeSantis who augured the era of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation nationally, which prohibits any discourse on sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools.

But other candidates have also embraced the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. In a CNN GOP candidate town hall, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley made the extreme — and false — claim that trans girls in sports are causing teenage girls to contemplate suicide.

“How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker room? And then they wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year,” Haley said. “We should be growing strong girls; confident girls.”

Haley said, “The idea that we have biological boys playing in girls’ sports — it is the women’s issue of our time.”

The GOP’s latest Speaker, Mike Johnson, also has a long anti-LGBTQ+ history that includes working as legal counsel for anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and supporting conversion therapy, which his wife, a mental health counselor, practices. 

Book bans, led by groups like Moms for Liberty, were another locus of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks. As the American Library Association (ALA) and PEN America, a free speech organization, reported, restrictions on books are expanding from school libraries to public libraries, moving well beyond banning just children’s books.

The ALA found that nearly half the book challenges it tracked between January and August of 2023 were in public libraries, up from 16% during the same period the year before. The ALA reported nearly 700 attempts to censor library materials, which targeted more than 1,900 individual titles — more than during the same period in 2022, a year that saw the most titles challenged since the ALA started tracking such data.

Nearly all challenged books were by or about people of color or LGBTQ+ people.

Amidst the laws, hateful rhetoric and outright violence that defined 2023 for LGBTQ+ people, there were some welcome changes. After a decades-long ban established during the HIV/AIDS crisis on blood donations by gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, the FDA finally changed its policy, basing it on risk assessment rather than sexual identity.   

As of 2023, donors will be screened for donation based on their recent sexual activity and drug use. Those who have anal sex with a new partner or more than one partner within the last three months will be required to defer donation.Those who take oral PrEP will be required to wait three months since their last dose. Those who use injectable PrEP must wait two years. While advocacy groups have criticized the new guidelines as still being discriminatory, a majority of men who have sex with men are now eligible to donate blood, destigmatizing the process after 40 years. 

“The implementation of these recommendations will represent a significant milestone for the agency and the LGBTQI+ community,” said Peter Marks, M.D., PhD., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “The FDA is committed to working closely with the blood collection industry to help ensure timely implementation of the new recommendations and we will continue to monitor the safety of the blood supply once this individual risk-based approach is in place.”

Another positive change in 2023 came from the Vatican. Pope Francis continued his efforts to humanize the Church and make it more inclusive for lesbian, gay and trans Catholics. Francis has been expanding his perspective on LGBTQ+ Catholics and has made it clear this is a policy the church hierarchy should embrace. In accordance with that policy, Francis has removed several highly placed prelates, including a cardinal and canon lawyer, for “divisive” attitudes toward LGBTQ Catholics.

The year began with Francis declaring during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that “Being homosexual isn’t a crime.” It was a declaration that, like many statements from Francis, sparked immediate controversy among his conservative detractors, but was welcomed by his supporters, including a majority of Catholics in the U.S.

Pope Francis also said trans people can be baptized and be godparents. The Pope’s embrace of transgender people’s participation in the church was revealed in a Vatican document that he approved on Oct. 31 and that was posted online Nov 11. 

And in the most inclusive move yet, the Pope has approved blessings for same-sex couples. The action marks the most radical change yet in Church policy. “Couples of the same sex” may receive priestly blessings, the Vatican said, so that these “human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel.”

There has also been pushback against the spate of anti-LGBTQ+ laws with judges issuing temporary stays on some laws such as those restricting gender-affirming care that were passed in Florida, Georgia, Montana and Indiana. But judges have also upheld restrictions on gender-affirming care passed this year in Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas.

But challenges to these laws continue. Just last week, three Florida public school teachers sued the state Education Department over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education act — the “Don’t Say Gay” law. A nonbinary Florida teacher fired for using the gender-neutral honorific “Mx” brought the suit.Finally, one ongoing political scandal came to a close this month when the House voted to expel its first out elected gay Republican, embattled and indicted New York representative George Santos. Santos was expelled Dec. 1 after the House Ethics Committee issued a scathing 56-page report Nov. 16. As Santos left the Capitol after the vote, he told reporters: “Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.” He has since begun a new career on Cameo, as he awaits a plea deal next year.

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