Carl Charles never liked guns. The product of a conservative military family in Colorado, Charles resisted learning to shoot at a young age. When he was in high school, the Columbine High School massacre — which his friends survived — cemented his fears.
That lifelong aversion suddenly shifted last Friday when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and President Donald Trump said he wanted to fill her seat before the November presidential election.
“I think with the dangers inherent in what a really virulent conservative majority on the Supreme Court could mean for many people, not just LGBT people, but in particular, I’m thinking about LGBT people of color… I started to think about that need to protect myself and my family,” he said.
Charles is transgender, and his husband is a Black man. The couple is very visibly queer, he says. They’re planning a move from New York to Atlanta, a city that Charles describes as a blue dot “in the middle of a very big red sea.”
And so, all things considered, Charles has concluded he might need guns. He’s learning how to use them.
In uncertain moments like these, LGBTQ+ advocates typically reassure their communities that, even in a worst case scenario, the law will protect them. But Charles isn’t just another queer person trying to read the tea leaves. He’s a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ legal organization. He’s among the legal team battling Trump’s military ban. With a 6-3 conservative court, he thinks some of the hardest-won gains for equality could be on the chopping block.
“I think what’s plausible, and will probably be first and foremost, is marriage equality,” Charles said. “But I don’t think that will be a one track attack for them. I think they’ll be doing all of this simultaneously,” adding that a number of trans rights cases are currently making their ways through the courts.
Transgender student Gavin Grimm’s five-year battle with his Virginia school board to use a boy’s bathroom at his high school is likely to hit the Supreme Court after an appeals court twice ruled in his favor. And a case involving Drew Adams, another transgender student who won his federal case in Florida to use a bathroom at his high school, might also be headed to the Supreme Court.
Trump said he plans to announce his nominee on Saturday. Lambda lawyers said the top contenders fall far short of Ginsburg’s legacy when it comes to applying the law fairly for LGBTQ+ Americans.
Lambda Legal and 26 other LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations vociferously opposed potential nominee Amy Coney Barrett during her 2017 confirmation to the 7th Circuit, referencing her affiliation with Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ+ legal organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group. Barrett also signed onto a letter that praised the Catholic church’s teachings “on marriage and family founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.”
Another potential pick, Allison Jones Rushing, has also worked with Alliance Defending Freedom. Joan Larsen, thought to be a top contender, wrote in an article in 2004 that she thought homosexuality shouldn’t be decriminalized.
Charles isn’t the only one worrying that LGBTQ+ gains at stake. Across the nation, queer people are debating fast-tracking major life changes, expecting that rights they now have could be stripped away. Trans and nonbinary people report trying to quickly access gender-confirming medical care out of fear that the Affordable Care Act will be struck down, and their insurance companies will stop covering transgender surgeries and hormones. There is a rush to put through legal name changes.
Erin Taylor, 24, and her girlfriend never talked about getting married before. The couple has been together for a year.
“I don’t want to super speed up the process,” said Taylor. “I want to be able to do it on my own time.”
For Taylor, she thought that looked like getting married in five years and maybe adopting kids after that. Ginsburg’s death, however, forced her to rethink the timeline.
“Five years from now, is this going to be possible in the same way?” she asked. “You can’t really know the answer.”
On Wednesday, four of Charles’ Lambda colleagues laid out their concerns in a Facebook live event about what a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court could mean.
“There are many threats in the legal realm to the rights of LGBTQ people,” said Lambda Litigation Director Diana Flynn. “But perhaps the most eminent one is the assertion of religious objections to compliance with the civil rights laws.”
Most immediately, queer legal experts are eyeing Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case over whether Philadelphia rightfully terminated a foster care contract with Catholic Social Services after the agency refused to place kids in same-sex households.
Karen Loewy, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, stressed that the case has far-reaching implications. Exemptions for government contractors could mean that LGBTQ+ seniors lose access to safe housing and meal programs, she said.
“You’re really seeing the harm really across the lifespan from allowing religiously-affiliated government contractors to say, ‘Well, your civil rights laws don’t apply to me,’” Loewy argued.
Kenneth Upton, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it’s cases like Fulton, where plaintiffs are seeking exemptions from discrimination law, that worry him.
“We could go back to the time when in some states you could get married, in some states you could adopt children, in some states you couldn’t.”
Texas, he points out, has no statewide LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination protections. From repealing anti-sodomy laws to granting marriage equality laws, the state legislature has never passed a pro-LGBTQ+ measure. Queer people in the Lone Star State have gained the rights they have entirely through the courts.
“Even if the Supreme Court were to undo everything, it doesn’t automatically fall back to where it was. It’s up to the states,” Upton said. “Would they reinstate sodomy laws in Texas? I don’t know that they would. Maybe enough things have changed. I’m not convinced that they would continue to let gay people get married.”
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the county’s largest LGBTQ+ organization, believes that marriage equality is settled law. But he also echoes the concerns from other advocates about protections against discrimination.
“What I do see is the risk that the court could allow individuals on the guise of religious liberty to discriminate against gay couples, as they exercise their fundamental rights in marriage,” he said.
He believes religious exemptions to pro-equality laws could render them largely meaningless. Hospitals could have a right to deny queer spouses hospital visitation. Queer married couples could lose parenthood rights to non-biological children if they don’t adopt them. Essentially, he fears that marriage for LGBTQ+ people would be largely symbolic.
Brad Polumbo, a gay conservative writer and journalist, thinks those fears are overblown. He points to the court’s historic LGBTQ+ ruling in June, in which a conservative-majority court voted 6-3 in favor of nondiscrimination workplace protections.
“I think the extent to which conservative judges are hostile to LGBT rights is exaggerated and catastrophized,” he said. “If we want to talk about other issues outside of gay marriage, maybe there’s some more substantive action that could happen, and some of it could be bad or wrong,” he said, adding that he thinks a conservative court would uphold trans rights passed into law by Congress but fall short of doing so on their own.
David Brown, legal director at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, is also optimistic, not just because they don’t see the court reversing itself.
“Most people’s access to health care, by and large, is not because of ACA,” they said, adding that most major companies’ health plans cover trans surgeries, and several states also mandate that coverage. “The impact would probably be the biggest on folks who lose coverage entirely.”
A full repeal, they think, is unlikely in a pandemic.
While LGBTQ+ legal experts caution against panicking, they are telling their clients now might be the time to tie up those legal loose ends.
“Am I saying people need to rush to the courthouse and get married after they’ve gone on three dates over Zoom with someone? No, that’s not what I’m encouraging folks to do,” Charles said. “What I am saying is if you’re in a position to do those things, and you’ve been thinking it’s not necessary or you wouldn’t need those protections, I think there’s a good argument to be made that you might.”