As the globe continues to battle against the coronavirus, now approaching more than two years since it first emerged, people have been eager to get back to “normal” and resume more active social lives amid vaccines, lockdowns, and mask mandates. While the pandemic was top of mind for many, just as in 2020, the world did begin to return to some sort of normal as people emerged from isolation.
For the LGBTQ community, emergence from our cocoons was mixed. Crime rates everywhere have spiked following lockdowns, raising concerns about violence directed at the LGBTQ community. Social conservatives were able to marshal frustration over lockdowns and virtual learning to lead a backlash against teachers, lesson plans, and LGBTQ books in schools. Some politicians have stood up for the LGBTQ community, while others have placed a target on our backs, in particular transgender individuals, with conservatives seemingly wishing to erase them from society.
In brighter news, the number of LGBTQ people in the U.S. has risen to the highest level ever, with each successive generation boasting increased numbers of people more willing to share their identities without shame or fear. Ups and downs are a natural part of life, developments — ranging from the political to the cultural — are often cyclical, and as the Bible notes, “for everything there is a season.” There is always some degree of hope for progress with each plot twist, each revelation, each new discovery.
Below are some of the most influential news stories from 2021, not only for the headlines they garnered, but their longer-term impact on our nation, the globe, and our culture going forward. Whether it’s trans trailblazer Gavin Grimm’s fight for transgender schoolchildren’s rights, increased LGBTQ visibility in sports, or historical “firsts” that can serve as a source of communal pride, LGBTQ people and the scale of their influence cannot be denied or shoved into the darkest recesses of the closet. We are truly here to stay, and, perhaps more importantly, at the forefront of the news.
1. Anti-trans violence reaches record levels
As with 2019 and 2020, 2021 proved to be a deadly year for transgender Americans, with the number of transgender people killed in an act of violence rising to the highest number since advocates began tracking the trend a few years ago. By year’s end, close to 50 transgender or gender-nonconforming people across the country — from all backgrounds, but especially transgender women of color — had lost their lives to violence. The rising death toll occurred despite COVID-imposed restrictions, which limited opportunities for venturing out of our homes. Sadly, the death toll could be even higher, as lack of local crime reporting, or misgendering of victims by police or news media can lead to some violent deaths going unreported.
2. Biden issues LGBTQ nondiscrimination orders
On the day he took office, President Joe Biden demonstrated his commitment to the LGBTQ community by issuing an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people. The order is based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County finding that employment discrimination against LGBTQ people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex-based discrimination.
With his order, Biden sought to prohibit discrimination not only in federal employment and in contracting, but in schools that recieve federal funds. Instances of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, including denial of resources and educational opportunities, or gender-based bans for restrooms or locker rooms, will now be treated as forms of illegal sex discrimination.
Biden also reversed a Trump executive order prohibiting agencies, contractors, and recipients of federal grant money from implementing diversity, inclusion, or anti-bias trainings. Just two months after his initial order, Biden subsequently issued another order directing the U.S. Department of Education to reassess its policies relating to Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in educational settings.
3. Carl Nassib comes out as first active gay NFL player
In June, Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders football team, came out as gay — making him the first openly gay player to actually play in a regular-season NFL game. To mark his coming out, Nassib pledged to donate $100,000 to The Trevor Project, the nation’s largest crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.
While Nassib’s acceptance would not have been possible without the trailblazing of Michael Sam, the former University of Missouri defensive end who was the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL franchise, or Ryan Russell, a journeyman who had played in games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who later came out as bisexual, Nassib’s accomplishment was nonetheless historic. Nassib has since reported that he has received “nothing but love and support” from his NFL teammates since coming out, and has since begun dating someone.
4. Biden’s LGBTQ nominees make history
The Biden administration dedicated itself to selecting cabinet members and administration appointees who mirror the diversity of the U.S.A., including LGBTQ people.
Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg made history when he became the Secretary of Transportation, the first LGBTQ cabinet member to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Dr. Rachel Levine, meanwhile, became the first out transgender person to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate when she was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Levine again made history when she became the first openly transgender four-star officer in the uniformed services, after she was sworn in as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. She is also the first woman four-star admiral in the corps.
Biden has also appointed or nominated several other LGBTQ individuals to posts within his administration, including Rufus Gifford as Chief of Protocol of the United States; Christy Goldsmith Romero as a commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; Jed Kolko as Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs; Reggie Greer as the Director of Priority Placement and a senior advisor on LGBTQ issues; Gautam Raghavan as the director of the Office of Presidential Personnel; Gina Ortiz Jones as Under Secretary of the Air Force; and Shawn Skelly as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management.
5. GOP lawmakers attack transgender rights across the country
If anything was representative of the state of LGBTQ issues in 2021, and the GOP’s reliance on wedge issues to compete in elections, it was the confluence of dozens of pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation in various state capitals across the nation. Tennessee was perhaps the worst, passing not only a ban prohibiting transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity, but penalizing doctors who prescribe gender-affirming health care treatments to transgender youth. Additionally, the state passed several other anti-LGBTQ bills, labeled by activists as “The Slate of Hate,” that sought to curb LGBTQ rights and prohibit discussions of LGBTQ-related content in schools.
Arkansas also passed a transgender sports ban and a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth, with several other states, including Texas, West Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, and Alabama, passing restrictions on trans athletes. And GOP lawmakers and governors seem determined to press on with transgender rights as a wedge issue in 2022, with some proposed bills even going so far as forcing teachers to “out” trans youth to their parents, regardless of the negative consequences of doing so.
6. Supreme Court refuses to hear Gavin Grimm bathroom lawsuit
After years of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender man and former high school student who sued his Virginia school district for barring him from using the boys’ restroom. By refusing the case, the high court allowed an appeals court ruling in Grimm’s favor to stand, and set precedent — at least for the 4th Circuit — that efforts to bar transgender people from certain spaces will be viewed as discriminatory. The school district eventually settled the lawsuit for $1.3 million.
Since Grimm first filed his lawsuit, two other appellate courts and several lower courts have ruled in favor of transgender students when it comes to equal access to facilities. The next big case is expected out of the 11th Circuit, where the conservative appeals court will consider the case of Drew Adams, a trans boy barred from boys’ facilities at his former Florida high school. It is widely expected that other trans youth, in the coming years, will cite the rationale underlying the Grimm case in their own fights against school district policies that seek to marginalize them.
7. Conservatives attack schools, libraries, call for banning books with LGBTQ content
Another worrying trend that gained steam in 2021 is the concerted effort, in various states throughout the country, to attack local school boards and public libraries over the availability of books with LGBTQ content.
In Wyoming, local prosecutors bent to public pressure from social conservatives and have weighed charging librarians with violating laws against obscenity for having books in their collections that reference LGBTQ themes or broach, even in passing, sexual topics. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ordered state agencies to ban books containing what he calls “pornography” and other “obscene content” from school libraries, which will likely impact LGBTQ-related books or novels by LGBTQ authors.
In several jurisdictions, two LGBTQ books in particular — Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, and Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison — have been banned for containing sexually explicit scenes. Notably, in Fairfax County, Virginia, conservatives led by Stacy Langton have accused the school board of peddling smut to youth by allowing those books to remain in high school libraries. Indeed, across the country, conservative groups, emboldened by Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race after seizing on school children being exposed to culture-war issues in schools, have sought to marshal outraged parents to demand such works be censored.
8. Record number of LGBTQ athletes compete in Tokyo Olympics
According to the LGBTQ sports website Outsports, at least 183 out LGBTQ athletes competed in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, marking a historic level of LGBTQ participation in the Games. If all of the out LGBTQ athletes had competed as a single team, they would have placed seventh in the world, winning 11 gold medals, 13 silver medals, and 9 bronze medals. That haul would have been enough to eclipse countries like the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Brazil.
Among the gold medalists who shone at the games were French handball champions Alexandra Lacrabére and Amandine Leynaud; Irish boxing champion Kellie Harrington; Canadian soccer star Quinn, the first nonbinary medal winner; Brazilian swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha; Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas; New Zealand rower Emma Twigg; and British synchronized diver Tom Daley.
For the USA, gold medalists included five LGBTQ members of the championship women’s basketball team: Sue Bird, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart, and Dianna Taurasi; and basketball player Stefanie Dolson, who, with her teammates, brought home Team USA’s first-ever gold in women’s 3×3 basketball.
9. Alphonso David forced out at Human Rights Campaign
The nation’s top LGBTQ organization was shaken up after its former president, Alphonso David, was accused of leaking the personnel file of a former subordinate after she accused former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment — one of 11 women to do so.
David, who served as in-house counsel to Cuomo prior to joining HRC, claimed that he was obligated to turn over the document in question. However, critics have tried to characterize his actions as malicious, after the Cuomo staffers David handed the document to subsequently leaked its content to the media to discredit the accuser. HRC claimed it would undertake a month-long investigation into David’s behavior. The results of that investigation have still not been made public.
David claimed that the probe had found “no wrongdoing” on his part in the Cuomo scandal, but the co-chairs of HRC and the HRC Foundation’s board of directors disputed that characterization and accused him of spreading inaccurate information concerning his culpability. The boards eventually voted to terminate David, installing Joni Madison, the organization’s chief operating officer, as interim President.
10. Amy Schneider makes history on Jeopardy!
Amy Schneider, an engineering manager from Oakland, California, has garnered national attention for her record-breaking run on trivia show Jeopardy!. Since first appearing on Nov. 17, Schneider has won more than two dozen times, earning $950,000 and legions of fans in the process. Schneider has qualified for the show’s Tournament of Champions, becoming the first out transgender person to do so, and with her 26 wins, she is the show’s highest-earning woman contestant, has the most wins of any woman contestant, and has the fourth-highest number of wins of all time for any contestant.
Schneider previously spoke about the importance of trans visibility and seeing other out transgender people competing on Jeopardy! in an op-ed for Newsweek. She wrote: “It was inspirational for me to see transgender contestants on the show before I became a contestant, and I hope that I am now doing that same thing for all the other trans Jeopardy! fans out there.”
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