2021 will be remembered as the single most dangerous year in modern American history for queer people. The Human Rights Campaign has distinguished 2021 as the “deadliest year on record” for transgender and gender non-conforming people and the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks.” These trends of violence and discrimination against the queer community are not aimless or incidental, they are a direct result of appropriated homophobia. To move past this dark and repressive chapter in US history, there must be an evaluation of the damage done.
This year has taken a particularly profound toll on the lives of transgender Americans. At least 50 transgender people have been murdered this year alone, breaking 2020’s previously haunting record of 44. These faces and their stories are undercovered and under-represented in traditional media. One of these victims is Jenna Franks, a trans woman from North Carolina, who was found in a creek in Jacksonville, NC in March 2021. The investigation remains open as a homicide and potential hate crime — a case which the state government has been less than helpful in resolving as hate crimes in North Carolina can not be classified by gender identity. Even in death, local outlets, officials, and reports misgender the late Jenna and belittle her legacy and her passing.
This incident is not isolated nor is it discouraged by state legislatures across our nation. In more than half of the country, gender identity is not protected in state hate crime laws. The very nature of these laws is intended to protect the marginalized and set a standard for prosecution against the perpetrator. States that do not opt to include sexual orientation or gender identity are leaving queer people to be vulnerable to violence.
State legislatures, beyond hate crime regulations, are waging a war against the well-being of the queer community through state laws restricting access to healthcare and other services.
This vulnerability can largely be attributed to inconsistency and lack of reporting across the country. In May 2021, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which increased funding and oversight for the data collection on hate crime statistics in cities from coast to coast. However, this data must be presented from the source, requiring local police departments to determine a motive and report potential bias. In 2020, about 80% of law enforcement agencies did not report a single hate crime, which is clearly statistically impossible — and commits to a larger conversation on responsibility and accountability from police departments.
America has become infamous for ignoring its most disturbing and deep-rooted issues following any milestone in human rights history. The election of a Black south-side Chicagoan to the highest office in the US government does not erase, nor rebuke, the ongoing belligerent persecution of racial minorities in America. Neither does a landmark case establishing marriage equality resolve record-breaking years of oppression. In 2020, half of LGBTQIA+ Americans reported hiding romantic relationships, one-third reported experiencing outright discrimination, and an additional one-third reported difficulties accessing necessary healthcare. The fight for equality is far from over. We must be deliberate in our efforts to address systematic issues encouraging discrimination from the ground up.
HOW THE LAWS DON’T PROTECT QUEER COMMUNITIES
Hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community are widely underreported in addition to being widely unresolved. Gersson Saavedra, was one of these cases. In September 2021, Gersson was brutally attacked, jumped, and seriously injured by two men spitting homophobic slurs in San Deigo. This case is just one of a laundry list of attacks that are becoming increasingly more common, with cases on the rise each and every year since 2015. This rise is also only associated with the crimes that have been reported, which is the minority of cases.
State legislatures, beyond hate crime regulations, are waging a war against the well-being of the queer community through state laws restricting access to healthcare and other services. In July 2021, Ohio Governor Mike Dewine installed deliberate restrictions for gay Ohioans into law by burying the language in a 700-page state budget. This new legislation will now allow medical professionals to deny services based on “moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.” In a state where gay residents can lawfully be fired, denied housing, and refused service for their sexual identity, this new attack adds yet another layer of vulnerability to a resume of homophobic laws. Potentially one of the most prominent offenders of this trend is Arkansas. This year alone, Arkansas state officials have made it a felony to provide transgender youth with “life-saving health care,” banned medical professionals from providing gender-affirming treatments to minors, as well as barred student-athletes who identify as transgender to participate in school-sanctioned sports.
Whether it be as blatant as a transphobic legislative agenda or as under-the-table as budget language, prejudice and inequity remain stark pillars of American society. Over the past 12 months, there have been over 100 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills pursued by state legislatures across our country. Even more sobering, by May 2021, 16 bills mentioning lawful discrimination against queer people had officially passed in state governments, shattering any record from previous years. One of these laws coming from Montana starkly undercuts gender identity and expression. Residents of Montana must now undergo invasive gender reassignment surgery to apply for changes to be made to their birth certificates. The cost of such treatment can accumulate to over $100,000, which is an impossible ask of an individual already heavily burdened by the implications of healthcare accessibility.
The year of 2021 has surely been a year of horror and harm for the queer community. From state laws restricting the daily lives of gay people to flagrant attacks of violence, hope for an inclusive future dwindles. However, there is promise in the voting booth. Selecting and uplifting advocates for the community may be the decisive answer to this growing problem.
As we enter 2022, we approach potentially one of the most crucial and influential midterm elections in recent years. A total of 469 congressional seats are up for election on Nov. 8, 2022. Behind this daunting and unpredictable federal election, lie countless state elections that will dictate the future of state legislative abuse toward the queer community. Advocates for change and allies of the community must get to the polls, and intentionally select state representatives, state senators, and other elected officials. In 2022, casting your vote is more than a civic duty, it is a humanitarian duty to protect the marginalized among us.
Additionally, there is some hope seen in the manifestation of progress through city mandates and progressive leadership. As states dig down into conservative legislation, cities have moved to indicate their robust commitments to the LGBTQIA+ community. The Human Rights Campaign in partnership with The Equality Federation has evaluated the Municipal Equality Index growth over the last decade and has observed a 44% increase in equality measures across city governments. This underlines just how important city and local elections are to inclusion and equality across the US.
The tragedy of this past year has redefined the urgency of advocacy and civic engagement. Behind the curtains of popular media are faces of those lost to the violence of homophobic hate crimes. It has never been more important to be involved in our political system, to vote with a conscience, and to seek our paths of impact in which you can commit to big-picture change. Queer Americans have been left in the fray this year. For 2022 to be any better, we must change the environment in which policy is made.