Vargas: Biden administration ushers in new era in LGBTQ+ rights
The State Department has moved to restore pride flags at U.S. embassies overseas. File photo.

The inauguration of President Joe Biden on Jan. 20 brought with it a wave of relief for the LGBTQ+ community.

During his four years as president, Donald Trump made the oppression of LGBTQ+ people a centerpiece of his administration, a campaign that often targeted the most vulnerable, such as children and the homeless.

As Joe Biden took the oath of office, the LGBTQ+ community was cautiously optimistic the worst was behind us and we could now turn to the slow and arduous process of rebuilding. I think it is safe to say, however, that few of us were prepared for President Biden’s flurry of pro-LGBTQ+ activity.

LGBTQ+ inclusion in the administration became an early sign of the president’s priorities. During the transition, the president appointed trans veteran Shawn Skelly to his transition team, and openly gay rising star Pete Buttigieg was nominated (and confirmed) to be secretary of transportation, making him the first senate-confirmed LGBTQ+ person in the presidential cabinet.

The president also tapped Pennsylvania’s chief health officer, Rachel Levine, to serve as the assistant secretary of health, making her the country’s leading voice on public health policy and the first transgender person to serve in a Senate-confirmed position.

Other major LGBTQ+ appointments include Carlos Elizondo as White House social secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre as deputy White House press secretary, Gautam Raghavan as deputy director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, and Arlando Teller as deputy assistant secretary for tribal affairs.

The president also moved with incredible speed to undue his predecessor’s most hateful anti-LGBTQ+ executive actions.

On his first day in office, President Biden signed a sweeping executive order requiring all executive offices to fully implement the rationale of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bostock decision, which held that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people was sex discrimination under Title VII. As I pointed out last year, the court’s broad interpretation of the word “sex” could impact hundreds of laws and regulations that involve sex and gender discrimination.

On Jan. 25, President Biden eliminated the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military, a policy change that enjoys broad popularity among current and former service members, pentagon leadership, and the public at large.

However, the Biden administration did not stop at simply undoing his predecessor’s bigoted legacy. The new administration also looked ahead in a foreign policy memo that placed the United States firmly in opposition to all forms of discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people around the world.

The memo specifically called out protection for LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers, a group that was publicly excluded by the last administration. This memo comes as the State Department moves to restore pride flags at our embassies overseas, revive the position of special envoy for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons and toss a wildly homophobic report by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s bigoted Commission on Unalienable Rights.

These developments suggest we are entering a period of not just rebuilding, but genuine progress for LGBTQ+ rights. The president’s domestic executive action ordering all departments and offices to apply the Bostock decision will almost certainly topple all of the previous administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ rules, regulations, and guidance, but it will also incorporate LGBTQ+ rights and equality into previously untouched areas of government regulation.

In other words, the executive order could conceivably accomplish a top-to-bottom incorporation of LGBTQ+ rights that advocates long sought, and it could be accomplished within just one presidential term. That would truly be a historic accomplishment.

The president’s foreign policy memo also lays out a path toward global justice for LGBTQ+ people. Over the past decade, the rise of authoritarianism around the world has led to a rise in human rights abuses against LGBTQ+ people as authoritarian leaders have used LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats.

Vladmir Putin’s gay propaganda law and the violence against LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya offer just two illustrations, but a 2020 global report card in the Advocate offers more examples of how authoritarian regimes around the world have stepped up violence against LGBTQ+ people in the absence of U.S. leadership on human rights. Biden’s memo offers hope that these abuses will now be addressed.

With an administration committed to protecting our historic gains, however, we also have an opportunity now to redefine what progress means for our community. For too long, our community has defined progress as universal victories. Marriage equality and the Equality Act will benefit all LGBTQ+ people.

But there are specific groups within out community who are still experiencing unique harms. LGBTQ+ people of color, the trans community, bisexual activists and an emerging generation of queer/nonbinary activists are all waiting for legal and social recognition. In this new era, we also have a historic opportunity to make progress inclusive, and we should take it.

Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.

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