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When Joe Biden took the presidency two years ago, LGBTQ+ Americans were facing a crisis. Under former President Donald Trump, transgender people had been barred from serving in the military. LGBTQ+ health care protections had been gutted. A leaked memo suggesting that the Department of Health and Human Services was considering defining transgender people “out of existence” had sent shockwaves through the community.
Biden’s election signaled a turning point, an opportunity to regain some of the ground lost during his predecessor’s single term. And while LGBTQ+ advocates say the president has made good on many of the promises he committed to on the campaign trail, they say there is more to do. And as he stepped up to the mic for the State of the Union address Tuesday night, many said they were also hoping to hear more from the commander-in-chief as queer people face an onslaught of legislative attacks in statehouses across the country.
Biden’s remarks included just two mentions of LGBTQ+ rights. Early on, he stated that he had signed “over 300 bipartisan bills” into law, including the Respect for Marriage Act, which makes marriage equality transportable across state lines in the event that the Supreme Court strikes down that right nationwide.
And later, after promising to veto an abortion ban, he said: “Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity.”
Biden has long been considered a champion of LGBTQ+ equality. His decision to publicly back marriage equality in 2012 famously nudged President Barack Obama to affirm his own support for same-sex marriage.
Two years into Biden’s presidency, LGBTQ+ advocates have largely praised the president, who has rolled back Trump’s transgender military ban and moved to restore anti-discrimination protections in health care and schools as well as issue new gender-inclusive passports.
But rather than using the State of the Union to push forward, Biden recalled familiar themes. First lady Jill Biden’s LGBTQ+ guests were Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith, a Massachusetts same-sex couple who advocated for marriage equality nearly two decades ago. The night did not feature transgender children or queer youth who have been the subject of media and legislative attacks over the last three years.
During Biden’s tenure, LGBTQ+ Americans have faced a barrage of hostile legislation in statehouses, most of it aimed at transgender children’s ability to play school sports and access health care. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported that 13 states added new anti-LGBTQ+ laws to the books last year. As of February 7, the American Civil Liberties Union had tallied 272 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced this session.
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HRC lists a number of key priorities for the administration to tackle in the coming years, some that the administration has already started working on. Others, like passage of nationwide anti-discrimination protections in the Equality Act, are unlikely in the next two years under a divided Congress.
Ahead of the speech, the LGBTQ Victory Fund noted that queer Americans are waiting to see if the Department of Education will take actions to protect LGBTQ+ students.
While the media organization GLAAD applauded Biden’s nod to the pending legislation, some were more muted in their response.
“In re-upping his call for Congress to pass the Equality Act and protect transgender youth, the President is leading by example to expand freedom so no one is left behind,” GLAAD said in a statement.
Kelley Robinson, president of the HRC, said that while Biden has worked with her group to fulfill many of the promises he committed to on the campaign trail, the work isn’t done.
“From here, the work gets harder,” she said in a media statement. “We need the administration to continue to put forth policies to fight against discrimination. We need to hear from the highest office in the land that we are greater than hate.”
Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, added that LGBTQ+ Americans face more urgent issues than marriage equality.
“What many people may not realize is that LGBTQ people are at the center of all the issues President Biden spoke about throughout his address,” Johnson said in a statement. “Biden’s refrain was that we need to come together to protect and defend our democracy. While I agree, I would say that we also need to reimagine and continue to build our democracy so that fewer of us are left behind. Expanding the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people must be central to that fight.”