On the evening of June 2015, the White House lit up in rainbow colors. That day, the Supreme Court had delivered a 5-4 opinion (authored by the mercurial then-Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy) declaring same-sex marriage was lawful. Dignified, even! D.C. residents flocked to Lafayette Square to hug each other and celebrate this win—marketed as #LoveWins—after decades of defeat. Then-First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughter, Malia, even snuck outside of the White House to join the after-dark celebration.
It was a jubilant time! Is there a more straightforward way to say that so many were so excited because a better world seemed possible? So rarely do you get to live in good historic times. Queer people got married that day. Pride parades scheduled for the following weekend had a new frenetic, ecstatic energy. Lead Supreme Court plaintiff Jim Obergefell was a guest of honor at the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, riding in a convertible for cheering crowds.
I remember feeling the impact of Obergefell v. Hodges in waves. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right,” Kennedy wrote. A different kind of life could be possible. My partner and I could get married if we wanted to. Then-President Barack Obama compared the decision to “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
Now, not even seven full years later, it appears that even the most obvious and popular victory in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights is on the conservative chopping block. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Obergefell was wrongly decided four times during the confirmation process for now-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. It was the sprinkles on the homophobic/transphobic cake we’ve been forced to ingest for the last year as state legislatures attempt to legislate queers, gays and theys out of existence.
Every year, lately, seems to be the worst year on record for anti-LGBTQ legislation. Since 2018, nearly 670 such bills were filed in state legislatures, according to analysis from NBC News. At least 238 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in 2022, and we’re not even finished with the first quarter of the year. Most can name the greatest hits of anti-gay legislation in the past 30 years—Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Prop 8, and the Defense of Marriage Act—but to fully understand how and why the last year of homophobic legislation happened, let’s return to the mid-2010s.
In a closed-door ceremony in March 2015, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R, obviously) signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the move was immediately met with condemnation. Republicans had found an issue that worked among politicians, but not the public. The next year, the tide explicitly shifted toward targeting trans people. In 2016, politicians in North Carolina thought they had a winning issue: House Bill 2. So much so that the bill was introduced, debated, passed and signed in 11 hours and 10 minutes. HB2 banned non-discrimination policies by municipalities, but more importantly, banned transpeople from using the restroom consistent with their identity.
It was a shit show. One estimate said it cost North Carolina $3.7 billion, while corporations like PayPal and Deutsche Bank declined to continue expansions in the state. “We started in 2015 seeing a surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation in state legislatures. It wasn’t an accident,” Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, told Jezebel. “They thought they had a winning issue when they introduced HB2.”
But they didn’t. Again, Republicans had to pivot their legislative agenda. Starting in 2020, Republicans across the country started to introduce specific anti-transgender legislation, with many specifically targeting trans kids. “In 2020 they were everywhere. Seventy-nine bills specifically targeted the trans community, while 32 were about school sports, 28 of them about medical care, [and] none about bathrooms,” Oakley told Jezebel. “Then in 2021, we had 150 anti-trans bills. That was a new record.”
This year, 140 anti-trans bills have been introduced so far in state legislatures, and it’s only April.
“These bills are being passed by the same folks who have been doing this 2015. It’s the same people,” Oakley told Jezebel. “What they care about is trying to diminish acceptance. They care about rolling back rights. They do not care about women’s sports. They do not actually care about restrooms. Those are all smoke and mirrors to make it seem like they’re doing something other than coming for LGBTQ people in all ways possible.”
The most visible pillar of LGBTQ life is marriage equality. The idea that marriage was the peak for the fight for gay civil rights was a flawed premise: Not even all straight people see marriage as the pinnacle of a relationship. Marriage equality was seen as a civil rights goal that would take decades to reach, much like the fight for voting rights (whether that goal was ever realized is rightly debated). It feels like we miss the point when we talk about the potential end of marriage equality in this country. Yet, for better or worse, marriage is this country’s benchmark for relationship success. Engaging in a legal marriage opens you up to tax benefits, healthcare access, familial ties. It’s not even been 10 years, but conservatives are fed up with having to deal with these gays being allowed to exercise their right to marriage.
Until they figure out the best way to tackle marriage equality, homophobic shit straight from the 80s will be said aloud. Gay people are being accused of “grooming” and “pedophilia”—by members of Congress and the media, alike. This mind-blogging conclusion can be traced all the way back to Obergefell: Before we could codify further advancements, conservatives eagerly looked for ways to thwart queer life, to prevent us from being accepted into mainstream society.
In Texas, they’re trying to criminalize supportive parents of trans kids. In Alabama, they’re trying to take away supportive doctors. In Utah, it’s coaches and teammates. “There’s real harm on the other end of this legislation, even when it doesn’t pass, even when it struck down in the courts. Real human beings, especially vulnerable trans kids, are on the other end of this rhetoric, which is really gotten extremely disturbingly aggressive in the last year or two,” Sasha Buchert, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, told Jezebel.
The goal of moving the goalposts of what is acceptable to say about LGBTQ people has been a decades-long project that is only now seeing success. It’s absolutely critical that we stop it. Why did we plaster up “Love Wins” on poster after poster, if love hasn’t actually won?