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Sorry Biden, but Better than Trump Is Not Good Enough for Queer People

Biden’s first year in office has been defined by broken promises and a lack of any meaningful action to protect or expand the rights of LGBTQ+ people at home or abroad.

Olivia Wood

February 7, 2022
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Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

January 20 marked one year of Biden’s time in office. Here at Left Voice, we’ve taken this opportunity to look at his track record on international politics, his relationship with the labor movement, his administration’s difficulties in passing legislation, and even more topics on our Instagram. Now we turn to his track record on LGBTQ+ issues.

Kate Sosin wrote one such balance sheet for The 19th, breaking down Biden’s first year in office according to each of his seven campaign promises toward LGBTQ+ voters. While some important statements have been made, such as a memo from the Department of Housing and Urban Development stating that the Fair Housing Act applies to sexual orientation and gender identity, even the actions that Sosin categorizes as wins for the community are still very, very weak. “Better than Trump” is hardly a high bar, and the LGBTQ+ community should mobilize to fight for our safety and rights instead of settling for scraps from politicians who claim to champion our rights but only want our votes.

The First Promise: Protect LGBTQ+ People from Discrimination

On his campaign website, Biden promised to make the Equality Act, first introduced to Congress in 1974, a political priority. The act would ban discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in areas such as education, housing, jury service, employment, healthcare, and more. In March, after Biden’s inauguration, an updated version of the bill passed the House of Representatives. But despite Democratic control of the Senate, it died there on arrival.

Sosin writes that LGBTQ+ advocacy groups “remain hopeful” about the Biden administration’s commitment to the Equality Act because none of his other pieces of priority legislation have passed the Senate either. This bizarre framing — “we know he still cares about us even though he failed to deliver on this promise, because he’s failed in his promises to everybody else too” — showcases the serious limitations of these groups. This mentality sets LGBTQ+ issues in opposition to other issues (“at least he’s not prioritizing someone else”) rather than as part of a holistic program of liberation. Those with this mentality view any legislative movement as a win, even when no actual legislation is passed.

According to Sosin, the LGBTQ+ nonprofits justify the Democrats’ lack of progress on the Equality Act by pointing to how busy Congress is negotiating over other significant issues, like infrastructure and voting rights. But infrastructure and voting rights are also queer issues — after all, LGBTQ+ people also drive on roads, use electricity, and experience barriers to voting — and the Democrats aren’t improving anything on those issues either. So it’s strange that the advocacy groups would view the Equality Act’s failure as a positive for the LGBTQ+ community, rather than as a negative.

The Second Promise: Support LGBTQ+ Youth

In this area, the Biden administration did take the important step of officially extending Title IX protections to trans students. While this opens legal pathways to overturn bills that prevent trans students from using bathrooms or playing sports, the bills cannot be overturned without actually taking them to court, a process that can take years. Furthermore, survivors of sexual harassment and assault at colleges and universities already know how hard it can be to get any sort of justice under Title IX — this is why one of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC-UAW)’s demands in their recent contract struggle was external, neutral arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment.

There are currently no fewer than 100 anti-trans bills being considered across 28 different states, 25 of which have already seen legislative movement in 2022. Most of these bills are aimed directly at trans youth, including prohibitions on trans youth’s ability to participate on sports teams, use the bathroom at school, learn about trans people in any capacity at school, or receive gender-affirming healthcare. Some of the bills ban public schools from requiring that school employees use trans students’ correct pronouns and names and from penalizing any school employees who misgender a student. These bills protect any school employee who wants to create an unsafe, harmful educational environment for a trans child. This is despicable. Supporting LGBTQ+ youth means doing everything possible to prevent bills like these from passing; the Democrats in Washington are offering nothing except a few nice words.

It’s important to remember that the Democratic Party only began supporting LGBTQ+ issues when it became politically expedient to do so. “We’re not homophobic, unlike those Republicans” is a political maneuver designed to win votes, just as Republicans like Mitt Romney and Donald Trump began marketing themselves as pro-life once they began running for president. LGBTQ+ people should never settle for a politician who offers support only as far as that support serves their own goals. Trudy Ring, writing for The Advocate, points out that a key barrier to passing the Equality Act is the filibuster in the Senate, yet bisexual Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who is a cosponsor of the act, continues to support the filibuster in the name of “moderation” and “bipartisan cooperation.” Even queer politicians — who we can assume are genuine in their support of LGBTQ+ rights — can’t be relied on to support us. Our people are suffering, and our people are dying. We must never allow politicians to placate us with a few supportive words.

The Third Promise: Protect LGBTQ+ People from Violence

As of mid-November, at least 375 trans people had been murdered in the United States during 2021. On June 30, 2021, the White House announced a number of new initiatives in support of trans people, one of which — the creation of a new White House–led Interagency Working Group on Safety, Inclusion, and Opportunity for Transgender Americans — was explicitly intended to address transphobic violence. The purpose of the working group is to “review policies that are upstream drivers of violence and poverty for transgender individuals, including homelessness, employment discrimination, violence and abuse, and bullying and rejection at school.”

No research is needed to know that providing homes for people reduces homelessness, that providing free healthcare increases access to healthcare, that higher wages reduce poverty, or that having the resources to escape violent situations reduces exposure to violent situations. As Sarah Ahmed shows in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, committees and initiatives are too often set up as a way to avoid fixing a problem (like discrimination) while pretending to fix it.

Providing free homes and healthcare to all and raising wages while increasing job security would go a long way toward improving the lives of the trans community, who disproportionately suffer from homelessness and poverty due to discrimination. On the campaign trail, Biden promised a measly $15 minimum wage, which, while better than the current $7.25 minimum wage, is still far from a living wage in most places. Yet the Biden administration did not even try to overrule the Senate parliamentarian when she declared last February that the American Rescue Plan could not include a minimum wage increase. Why? Because raising the minimum wage would cut into capitalists’ profits. And providing free homes and healthcare would cut into the profits of landlords and the real estate industry, which make up the biggest single category of the U.S. GDP, and the entire medical industry (the fourth biggest category of the U.S. GDP).

A working group does very little to actually improve the lives of trans people, and it functions as a means to pacify and demobilize any budding radicalism. Forming a working group says, “Be patient, we’re working on it, no need to get upset.” But its existence does not guarantee that any positive reforms, even modest ones, will pass. There is a great need to get upset.

The Fourth Promise: Expand Access to High-Quality Health Care for LGBTQ+ People

This promise was never going to be fulfilled, because it relies on making changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a reform designed to make just enough concessions to avoid any systemic changes to privatized healthcare in the United States. Because there is no public option, the ACA expands access to private insurance, functioning as yet another handout to capitalists. Even with the ACA, however, 28 million people in the United States did not have health insurance at any point during 2020.

The Department of Health and Human Services did state in its annual policy report that nondiscrimination protections removed from the ACA under Trump should be reinstated and that gender-affirming healthcare should be covered by insurance plans offered on the ACA marketplace. But this report was released on December 28, almost a year into Biden’s first term. Furthermore, if the proposals are approved — which is still an if — they won’t go into effect until 2023 at the earliest. These moves cannot even be considered steps in the right direction — more like preparations to take steps in the right direction.

Even with this potential reform, trans people will still have to contend with all the other shortcomings of the ACA, from the highly confusing portal to still having to pay for healthcare. Even with insurance, many common procedures are still incredibly expensive, keeping them inaccessible to many.

Furthermore, for-profit healthcare means that even patients who do have insurance and can afford their out-of-pocket costs are still forced to receive low-quality care as a result of understaffing and other profit-maximizing measures in an industry that trains practitioners to view patients as isolated problems to be “solved” as quickly as possible, rather than as human beings in need of holistic attention and care.

The Fifth Promise: Ensure Fair Treatment of LGBTQ+ People in the Criminal Justice System

Ensuring that trans people are imprisoned among people of their same gender does not change the fact that trans people are more likely than cis people to be harassed or assaulted by police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be harassed or assaulted once they are in jail, more likely to be denied healthcare in prison, and more likely to be sent to solitary confinement. It does not change the fact that prison itself is inhumane, that abuse is rampant, that healthcare is denied to all people, even if it happens to trans people even more often than cis people.

Even though this goal is highly limited, Sosin notes that Biden has failed to issue any sort of policy addressing the fair treatment of LGBTQ+ people within the criminal justice system, and he has released only a “statement of interest” about Ashley Diamond, a trans woman who sued the Georgia Department of Corrections for placing her in a men’s facility, failing to provide her with medical care, and failing to protect her from the multiple beatings and sexual assaults she experienced in prison.

The Sixth Promise: Collect Data Necessary to Fully Support the LGBTQ+ Community

One would think this would be the easiest promise for Biden to fulfill — it could even take the form of a federal grant awarded to a university or existing nonprofit. Nevertheless, the best thing the Biden administration could produce was a CDC report on LGBTQ+ people’s vulnerability to Covid-19, based on preexisting data on underlying health conditions — no new surveys or other forms of data collection were conducted. Sosin says the nonprofit advocates they spoke with while working on their article argued that “while the document didn’t offer new data … [it was] a clear sign that the administration was recommitting the government to tracking the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people.” The bar is so low that it is practically in hell.

As discussed above in the section on violence against LGBTQ+ people, there are many, many ways that we already know would help the community. The government just refuses to do them, because things like free housing and higher wages hurt profits.

The Seventh Promise: Advance Global LGBTQ+ Rights and Development

Not only has Biden failed in fulfilling this promise, but the promise itself was nothing but fool’s gold to begin with.

“Advancing global LGBTQ+ rights” sounds good, but it really means using our rights as a smokescreen for imperialism in service of U.S. economic interests, just as feminism is used as a justification for the war in Afghanistan. But Afghan women and Palestinian queer people don’t benefit from their homes being bombed.

In context, though, Biden’s “advancing global LGBTQ+ rights” policy also refers to improving the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. immigration system, such as those seeking asylum from persecution. This is just like the promise for equitable treatment in prisons — it naturalizes the fact that people are being imprisoned. Kids in cages, but with a rainbow flag.

Dagoberto Bailon, the immigration advocate with Trans Queer Pueblo who Sosin interviewed for their article, said that conditions in detainment centers “seem to be the same” as under Trump, that “we don’t have doctors,” and that asylum seekers whose lives will be threatened if they return to their countries of origin are still being turned away at the border. The silver lining? According to Bailon, asylum seekers are spending “only” weeks in detainment, instead of months or years. But there have been more people detained under Biden than under Trump.

This phenomenon of paying lip service to queer rights in order to cover up human rights abuses is known as pinkwashing, and it is particularly associated with Israel’s attempts to justify its oppression of the Palestinian people.

At the end of their article, after addressing Biden’s seven campaign promises for LGBTQ+ people, Sosin addresses a number of other actions the Biden administration has taken — and failed to take — during the last year. Even the ones that are positive are minimal at best.

  1. He issued an executive order affirming a Supreme Court decision that already existed (Bostock v. Clayton County).
  2. He reversed Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the military.
  3. Biden’s government issued the first U.S. passport with gender marker X, which was viewed as positive by many, while others questioned why gender markers belong on government documents at all, as well as the dangers of the state having an official list of trans citizens.
  4. He reversed a Trump rule that allowed federally funded housing agencies to discriminate against trans people. Reversing this is good, but making changes on this level ignores the many other factors that cause trans people — and cis people — to be homeless in the first place.
  5. He nominated a bunch of LGBTQ+ officials for government positions. While increased representation is good, Sinema’s voting record shows how little this matters in terms of actual policies that would help LGBTQ+ people.
  6. His administration continued enforcing the rule that prohibits blood donation from anyone assigned male at birth who has recently had sex with someone else assigned male at birth — a stigmatizing holdover from the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States.
  7. The White House celebrated Pride this year — good, I guess? But lighting up the White House rainbow one night a year is a reprehensible piece of allyship theater coming from a government that is doing nothing to stop the current legislative attacks against trans children.
  8. He did little to address — even just verbally — the multitude of anti-trans bills moving through state legislatures.
  9. His administration began meetings with intersex rights advocates — positive, but extremely limited in impact.

Voting for Democrats means voting for imperialism funded by massive military spending, for the continued imprisonment of immigrants, for low wages, for the continued oppression of Indigenous peoples, for an absolutely insufficient response to climate change, for more handouts to corporations, and for a continuation of for-profit housing and healthcare. All these things hurt the queer community. LGBTQ+ people should expect more from politicians, and we should demand more from anyone who wants to receive our votes — which means voting for class-independent candidates not beholden to bourgeois parties. Biden’s moves on explicitly LGBTQ+ issues are absolutely insufficient, especially in light of all his policies that harm us as well as cis and straight people, and we should not be grateful for whatever crumbs we receive.

We need healthcare. We need housing. We need higher wages and safe working conditions. We need to be safe from police brutality, safe from prisons. We need to have freedom of movement across borders, freedom to live wherever in the world we would like to live. We need to be safe in expressing ourselves however we wish. We owe it to trans kids to fight for a world in which they can go to school safely, participate in activities, and learn about their histories and communities like any other kid. We owe it to trans kids to fight for a world in which no one — not a principal, not a politician, not even their own parents — can prevent them from being themselves, being treated with respect, or getting the healthcare they need. We must mobilize as working-class queers like our ancestors before us, and we must not settle for less.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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