U.S. LGBT Landscape Shifts with Cultural and Legislative Achievements

September 23, 2014

Standing fabulously high in four-inch heels, Robert Guy was one of about 20 participants and hundreds of audience members who kicked off the first “Appropriate Attire” fashion show in November 2009, at Spelman College, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia.

“LGBT students went from being marginalized and invisible to being part of the culture of the campus,” says Je-Shawna Wholley, who founded the annual show in reaction to the dress code at Morehouse College, Spelman’s companion school for men, which had recently enforced a ban on “wearing of clothing associated with women’s garments.”

“It was not only a victory for freedom of expression at our schools, but, for some of us, helped shape our lives as LGBT students of color in the South,” says Wholley, who is now 27 and until recently was a leader within the Black Youth Project 100 initiative of emerging activists.

The 14 southern states1 have historically lagged in legal protections for LGBT people. They comprise nearly half of the 29 states where it remained legal in 2013 to fire or refuse to hire a person solely based on sexual orientation and of the 32 states in which it is legal to do so on the grounds of gender identity.

“Our people are suffering from severe isolation to the point that some are not leaving their homes,” says Salem Acuña of Southerners On New Ground (SONG). “If you’re transgender or undocumented….the fear of violence is very real, especially in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure, resources, and funding for LGBTQ organizing in our region.”

Nationally, major LGBT victories in 2013 included the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), strengthening of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), approval of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by the U.S. Senate, and state-level advances on recognition of same-sex relationships. However, those working at the intersection of LGBT rights and racial justice reeled from the overturn of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to curb discrimination in electoral procedures, particularly in the South.

Reauthorization of VAWA, on March 7, 2013, included protections for LGBT survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence, who face major barriers to safety and have historically been denied access to domestic violence shelters. It explicitly protects transgender individuals who are among the most visible targets of LGBT violence.

“The possible precedent is huge,” says Chai Jindasurat of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), noting that this was the first time in which a statute passed by Congress had explicit nondiscrimination passages covering LGBT people. In 2013, 13 of the 18 anti-LGBT homicides reported to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs by organizations in 14 states and Puerto Rico were of transgender women. Almost 90 percent of the homicide victims were people of color.

The effects of unstable and informal employment for trans individuals adds to the scarcity of funding for organizations serving this community, says Gabriel Foster, cofounder of the Transgender Justice Funding Project and a participant at the Arcus National Transgender Advocacy Convening in November.

In 2013, the organization made grants to 22 groups, including the TransLatin@ Coalition, whose report Transvisible: Transgender Latina Immigrants in U.S. Society, shows that the United States is a high-risk destination for the majority of trans Latinas who leave their countries of origin due to high levels of violence. Some 57 percent of the 101 women surveyed found it “very difficult” to access secure and well-paid employment, and 34 percent were employed in the sex industry.

“Transphobia manifests in so many different ways,” says TransLatin@ founder and president Bamby Salcedo. “What’s really important is for our community to be recognized and protected officially, by government and by employers, as individuals with human rights and civil rights.”

1As identified in the report Out in the South by Funders for LGBTQ Issues.