In the final stretch of the campaign, Reggie Greer, who was then Joe Biden’s LGBTQ+ vote director, made a promise to queer Americans: “When the history books are written, I am certain that advancing LGBTQ+ equality will be one of the Biden-Harris administration’s top achievements,” Greer told The 19th in September 2020.
As a candidate, Biden made seven major commitments to LGBTQ+ voters, many of them aimed at rolling back policies made by the Trump administration seen as anti-LGBTQ+. One year into his presidency, Biden has fulfilled many of those promises but has fallen short on others. We broke down Biden’s LGBTQ+ platform and asked queer legal experts to assess the administration one year in. The administration was asked for comment on each commitment and other advances and setbacks.
Protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.
“Biden will make enactment of the Equality Act during his first 100 days as President a top legislative priority.” — Biden’s campaign website
Before taking office, Biden promised to do something that most people thought was already law: make discrimination against LGBTQ+ people illegal. The Equality Act would bar discrimination employment, housing, schools, public accommodations, health care, jury service and more. The bill, the most comprehensive queer civil rights legislation ever introduced, has been a dream of advocates since its introduction in 1974.
It passed the House of Representatives in March but failed to gain any traction in the Senate. The protections, backed by nearly 70 percent of Americans, took a back seat to issues including COVID, the economy and infrastructure.
LGBTQ+ advocates say that if other priority legislation were moving, they would be more alarmed about the status of the Equality Act, but because Congress remains deadlocked on big bills on issues such as voting rights, they remain hopeful.
“The President isn’t the problem here,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement. “The inaction of the Senate is, and LGBTQ people and our allies should be flooding their Senators’ phones and emails to demand they pass this critical piece of legislation.”
The White House said in a statement to The 19th that the president remains committed to the bill.
“The President continues to urge the Senate to swiftly pass the Equality Act so that all people are able to live free from fear and discrimination,” a spokesperson said in an email. “The White House remains engaged with Congress and the LGBTQ+ community to advance the Equality Act and ensure all people are provided long overdue civil rights protections regardless of who they are or who they love.”
This month, a new coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations launched to push the measure, signaling that activists are digging in for a long fight ahead.
Support LGBTQ+ youth.
“How we treat them is the measure of what kind of decency and honor we have as a society.” — Biden, June 1, 2019
Queer youth have been the target of legislative attacks from coast to coast over the past year.
In May, Biden told those kids he had their backs.
“To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially the young people, you’re so brave,” Biden said in an address to a joint session of Congress.
The administration has repeatedly condemned anti-trans bills moving through state houses. Preston Mitchum, director of advocacy & government affairs for youth suicide prevention organization the Trevor Project, said in a statement that the president deserves credit for consistently offering supportive messages to those youth over the past year.
“To end the public health crisis of LGBTQ youth suicide, we must break down barriers to care, confront stigma and key risk factors that contribute to mental health disparities, and make major investments in public education and health programs that enable LGBTQ young people to survive and thrive,” Mitchum said.
One area where the Biden administration did offer concrete policy for transgender youth was in the establishment of Title IX sex discrimination protections for transgender kids. The directive from the Department of Education allows the federal government to investigate complaints of discrimination against trans kids in schools, something that the administration of President Donald Trump declined to take up.
Protect LGBTQ+ individuals from violence.
“During his first 100 days in office, Biden will direct federal resources to help prevent violence against transgender women, particularly transgender women of color.” — Biden’s campaign website
In 2019, advocates reported a record-breaking number of 29 murders of trans people. Last year 52 transgender people were murdered, the majority of them trans women of color, according to the National Black Justice Coalition.
While experts have noted that the murders follow an overall spike in crime, they also say the near doubling of trans homicides is a side effect of rising animosity against trans people as state legislatures push anti-trans bills. Advocates have asked the Biden administration to combat that legislation more forcefully.
The administration has set up a government-wide working group to combat violence facing trans Americans.
Expand access to high-quality health care for LGBTQ+ individuals.
“[We] passed the Affordable Care Act so no one can be denied health care because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.” — then-Vice President Biden, March 23, 2014
The Affordable Care Act brought watershed changes to transgender health, making it illegal to discriminate against transgender Americans seeking medical care and insurance coverage. But just as quickly as those protections went into effect, they were ensnared in litigation, and the Trump administration formally moved to eradicate those protections from the ACA.
Early this year, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was restoring the Obama-era protections and adding new rules to bolster insurance coverage for gender-affirming medical care.
Ensure fair treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals in the criminal justice system.
“As President, Biden will require the Bureau of Prisons to revise the Transgender Offender Manual to once again include protections for transgender individuals who are incarcerated.” — Biden campaign website
LGBTQ+ people report high rates of discrimination and violence in state and federal prisons. Transgender people, who are rarely placed according their lived genders despite federal law that requires states to evaluate their placements on a case-by-case basis, report extraordinary rates of sexual assault behind bars.
Trump further rolled back protections for transgender prisoners by axing the Transgender Offender Manual, which gave guidance on appropriate placement and treatment of transgender people who were detained in federal prisons. Biden vowed to restore that guidance and enforce federal law to keep transgender people safe behind bars. The president has yet to issue any policy toward these goals.
However, the administration did issue a “statement of interest” in the case of Ashley Diamond, a trans woman incarcerated in Georgia who claims she has been repeatedly sexually abused in men’s prisons.
“We haven’t been in neutral for this year, but we definitely want to see us sort of moving into a higher gear on a lot of this work,” said Sharon McGowan, legal director of LGBTQ+ advocacy group Lambda Legal.
Collect data necessary to fully support the LGBTQ+ community.
Historically, the federal government has collected minimal data on LGBTQ+ people. Under the Trump administration what progress had been made was rolled back when the administration began scraping mentions of transgender people from federal websites and scrapping data collection from federal surveys. That left the Biden administration with enormous challenges, say advocates.
“I think in many ways, we were at the floor when the Biden administration took over,” said Naomi Goldberg, deputy director of the Movement Advancement Project, which maps LGBTQ+ gains across the nation.
In February 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report laying out the health disparities that leave queer Americans especially vulnerable to COVD-19. While the document didn’t offer new data, advocates hailed it as a clear sign that the administration was recommitting the government to tracking the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people.
Advance global LGBTQ+ rights and development.
“Biden will end Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols and restore our asylum laws so that they do what they should be designed to do—protect people fleeing persecution and who cannot return home safely.”
Coming into office, Biden vowed to welcome LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, end prolonged detention and rescind travel bans so that queer migrants fleeing violence could find safety in the United States.
“He will make sure LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers have access to necessary services and protections,” his LGBTQ+ platform promised. “And, he’ll ensure federal agencies are trained to identify and respond to the particular needs of LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers, including by expediting services for LGBTQ+ people who may be targeted by violence or are under threat in their home countries.”
A year into his presidency, queer immigration advocates say almost nothing has been done for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
Dagoberto Bailon, an assistant with the immigration advocacy organization Trans Queer Pueblo, said transgender women continue to face disproportionate levels of harassment, intimidation and violence in the country’s detention centers.
“We’ve heard from women who have complained about feeling sick,” Bailon said. “We don’t have doctors, and I think the whole pandemic has allowed for less medical care. But conditions seem to be the same.”
Bailon did add that migrants are being processed faster by the administration, resulting in them spending days to weeks in detention instead of months to years. Still, asylum seekers who face life threatening conditions in their home countries continue to be turned away at the border, he noted.
Additional actions from the administration:
The Bostock executive order issued
On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order enforcing the Supreme Court’s landmark LGBTQ+ employment ruling, Bostock v. Clayton County.
Biden reasoned, as courts were expected to, that because the Supreme Court had applied sex discrimination protections in Title VII of Civil Rights Act to sexual orientation and gender identity for employment, that law would apply to other areas of life, including education and housing.
McGowan of Lambda Legal said the order was an important signal that the Biden administration would enforce policies protecting LGBTQ+ rights and beyond.
“That can’t be overstated, how significant it was in terms of just level setting, both in terms of the administration’s commitment to thinking about LGBTQ issues as core civil rights issues, but also in many ways restoring a commitment to the rule of law,” McGowan said.
Trans military ban overturned
Within his first week in office, Biden issued an executive order reversing Trump’s transgender military ban that jeopardized the military careers of an estimated 13,700 trans service members. The military is the single largest employer in the nation, and the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey finds that transgender people are three times more likely to be unemployed than their cisgender peers. They are also twice as likely to serve in the military.
Gender-neutral passports issued
After more than six years of legal battles, intersex Coloradan Dana Zzyym became the first American to be issued a passport with a gender marker “X” instead of male or female in October. The new passport marked a historic turning point for intersex, transgender and nonbinary Americans who had been pushing the federal government for years to roll out the gender-neutral option. The Trump administration repeatedly refused to issue the “X” markers, despite federal court rulings. But Biden promised to update federal documents if elected to remove red tape for gender-diverse people.
Anti-trans shelter policy scrapped
In February, the Biden administration reversed a Trump era rule that allowed federally funded shelters and housing programs to discriminate against transgender people. The move was hailed by LGBTQ+ advocates as critical to ensuring that transgender people, who are more likely to be homeless than their straight peers, are able to find emergency housing.
LGBTQ+ officials nominated
The Biden administration nominated more than 200 LGBTQ+ officials — a historic number — to everything from Cabinet positions (Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg) to key health care spots (Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary for health), according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute.
While Biden sent the first out woman to be confirmed on the federal appeals court by nominating Beth Robinson, advocates say the president has thus far failed to send many LGBTQ+ judicial nominees to the bench.
“We’re talking about a judiciary that’s over 800 slots, and the number of LGBTQ+ people is minuscule,” said Lambda Legal’s McGowan.
Discrimination in blood donations unchanged
The pandemic strained the nation’s blood supply in unprecedented ways, pushing the Food and Drug Administration under the Trump administration to lift its 12-month deferral from donations from “men who have sex with men” and shorten that wait time to three months.
Still, the deferral has been criticized as homophobic and stigmatizing. During his campaign, Biden vowed to institute a science-based approach in revising blood donation guidelines. A year into his term, the Food and Drug Administration president has yet to change the policy.
In January, the Red Cross announced it was facing the most dire blood shortage it had seen in more than a decade, and 22 senators wrote to the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services asking them to lift the ban.
David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, said science clearly supports that move, and his organization has been pushing the administration to update the policy.
“There’s every reason in the world for them to move towards risk-deferral policy expeditiously,” he said. “Our expectation is that that will happen.”
Pride returned to the White House
“Pride is back at The White House,” Biden declared in June. Trump did not formally acknowledge three of the four Pride months that passed under his leadership. In June 2021, the Biden administration hosted LGBTQ+ leaders and advocates at the White House in a celebration, marking the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. The president designated the deadly shooting at LGBTQ+ Pulse Nightclub, which claimed the lives of 49 people, a national memorial.
GLAAD, which tallies presidential actions with an “accountability tracker,” said Biden has brought unprecedented visibility to queer Americans and praised the White House’s decision to kick off its Pride festivities with trans teen activist Ashton Mota.
Anti-trans bills passed in states
The past year saw a record number of 10 anti-trans bills introduced and passed, and they are already flooding statehouses in 2022. Advocates have been torn on whether or not the president can and should do more to stop the bills, by more forcefully advocating for passage of the Equality Act and suing states that pass bills that violating sex discrimination protections enshrined in the president’s anti-discrimination executive order.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said leaders at all levels of government must do more in this political climate to communicate to LGBTQ+ youth that they can grow up and succeed.
“The White House, Congress, state and local lawmakers, school and community leaders, advocates and especially the media all need to do more to correct the misinformation at the center of these bills and speak up about the harm they cause all youth,” Ellis said in a statement to The 19th. “Voters need to be educated about state-sponsored discrimination and hold lawmakers accountable.”
Intersex rights meetings begin
In a landmark first, the Biden administration began meetings with intersex advocates. The State Department marked Intersex Awareness Day this October by pointing out that many intersex Americans are forced to have surgeries without their consent or knowledge at a young age. Intersex advocates have celebrated the acknowledgement of the day as a historic first.