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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

Joe Biden’s first week as President has already made us proud

January 26, 2021

Just days after the Inauguration, President Joe Biden has implemented major LGBTQ improvements.

I don’t fall in love with politicians. That’s a dangerous ideological path to stumble down. But I am in love with justice and democracy and anyone who takes me in that direction has my ear. I was listening hard at the Inauguration for those two themes and they were writ large. Not just in the words President Joe Biden spoke, but in what he had crafted for his Inauguration. Who and what the man who has been running for president since 1988 surrounded himself with set the tone for the event and for this new—and eagerly awaited—chapter in American politics and policy.

The first woman vice president, Kamala Devi Harris, was sworn in by the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. Harris also makes herstory as the first Black vice president and first vice president of South Asian descent.

Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, mesmerized the nation with her Inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Firefighter Andrea Hall was yet another Black woman who set a new tone. She didn’t just recite the Pledge of Allegiance—she became the first person to sign it in ASL, her white dress gloves flashing as she did. Lady Gaga, dressed in a dramatic fuchsia and black gown, sang the national anthem.

Jennifer Lopez sang “America the Beautiful,” which should be the national anthem. That song was written in 1895 by Katharine Lee Bates, a lesbian professor at Wellesley College.

It was a brilliantly sunny day—a strident metaphor so necessary after the past four years of darkness and despair: Four years in which women, people of color, immigrants, disabled, poor and LGBTQ people have suffered tremendously. For LGBTQ people who intersect with any of those other groups, as do I and my family, life under the Trump presidency was a terrorizing time. This is not hyperbole. In four years I wrote several hundred articles about the harm the former president was doing and to whom. For queer and trans people, it was an era of literal danger: healthcare access was rescinded in a pandemic.

There was a rise in hate crimes so significant that in 2020, the FBI reported nearly 1 in 5 of all hate crimes (19%) were perpetrated against LGBTQ people–wildly disproportionate to their demographic. Poverty increased dramatically for LGBTQ people, as did job loss. There was a ban on trans people in the military and a ban on bathroom access for trans students. There was even a ban on flying the rainbow flag during Pride month at our embassies.

Dr. Rachel Levine | State Portrait

The very first action of the Trump-Pence administration on Inauguration Day 2017 was to remove the LGBTQ pages from the White House website. One of the first actions of the Biden-Harris administration on Inauguration Day 2021 was for President Biden to issue an executive order protecting LGBTQ Americans. Titled “Executive Order on Preventing and Combatting Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation,” the EO begins, “Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love.”

This represented the antithesis of the previous administration, which just days before the Inauguration, on Jan. 13, issued a 77 page set of rules from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) restricting access by LGBTQ people to social services and healthcare.

The broad-based HHS regulation allows for religious freedom laws and personal beliefs to supersede legal mandates. Thus a homeless queer or trans person could be turned away from a shelter or a gay person with cancer be refused a ride service for chemo patients or an elderly queer person denied Meals on Wheels. The breadth of discrimination inherent in the ruling is as wide as it is harrowing. And it will have to be rescinded by Congress.

It is to be hoped that Dr. Rachel Levine, former Secretary of Health for Pennsylvania, who Biden nominated for Assistant Secretary of Health, will be able to argue the case for that recision. Levine would be the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the Senate. On Jan. 17, Trump had issued another memo, this one 23 pages, revoking aspects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County. That case had officially added lesbian, gay and trans persons to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, making it illegal for employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the Trump memo embraced the dissenting opinion of Justice Samuel Alito from the 6-3 decision. According to the Wall Street Journal, which saw the memo, it read in part: “Unlike racial discrimination, the Supreme Court has never held that a religious employer’s decision not to hire homosexual or transgender persons ‘violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice’ or that the government has a ‘compelling’ interest in the eradication of such conduct.”

On Jan. 22, Greg Friel, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, revoked that directive, citing Biden’s executive order. Biden’s EO requires that federal government agencies review all policies against sex discrimination currently in place to ascertain that they also prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people. As the new administration rolled out plans for the coronavirus pandemic and concomitant economic recovery, the Senate was holding confirmation hearings for Biden’s cabinet.

Among those was Pete Buttigieg, who will make history as Transportation Secretary–the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the Senate. The questioning of Buttigieg was surprisingly civil with only one exception: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who took issue with Buttigieg’s emphasis on climate change. The climate crisis was a focal point of Buttigieg’s own run for president and it is top on the Biden-Harris agenda. As senator, Vice President Kamala Harris co-wrote Green New Deal legislation with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and was the first to co-sponsor the Green New Deal in the Senate.

Buttigieg, who will be the first millennial Cabinet member in history, told Cruz, “When the books are written about our careers, one of the main things we’ll be judged on is whether we did enough to stop the destruction of life and property due to climate change.” It is early days and Trump and Pence left quite a mess for Biden and Harris to clean up. But the transparency of the new administration, with detailed daily press briefings from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and joint press conferences with Biden and Harris, portends a definitive change in tone and attitude toward the press and, most importantly, the American people.

The promise Biden and Harris made as they campaigned, their stated commitment to progressive change that is inclusive of all Americans, is being realized in myriad ways. For people who have been not just marginalized but demonized, for the past four years, this change represents more than tone: it is Cabinet members and other administration officials who look like America—including queer and trans America. As Gorman said in her poem, “our people diverse and beautiful will emerge/battered and beautiful.” Inauguration Day was brilliantly sunny. An exquisite day in the dead of winter. And a metaphor, one hopes, for the days to come.

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