Black leaders applaud Biden amid ‘Pride’ executive order, express concerns over growing anti-LGBTQ laws

TheGrio exclusive report: President Biden is urged to call for the end of the filibuster to pass the Equality Act, among other measures to advance LGBTQ equality.

Black LGBTQ+ leaders in Congress and the civil rights space applauded President Joe Biden for his historic commitments to advancing visibility and protections for queer, trans and nonbinary people. During Pride Month, they’re also encouraging him to do more amid what they see as a political attack on the community. 

The Biden-Harris administration celebrated Pride Month on Wednesday during a White House ceremony affirming LGBTQ+ Americans and the need to protect the community from discriminatory laws and practices.

U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order on advancing equality for LGBTQI+ individuals as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (2nd L), Vice President Kamala Harris (3rd L), first lady Jill Biden (3rd R) and Javier Gomez (2nd R) of Florida and other LGBTQI advocates look on during a pride event at the East Room of the White House June 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. The White House held a reception to celebrate Pride Month. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Biden, accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and others, signed an executive order at the event, held in the East Room where theGrio was in attendance, to advance equality for LGBTQ+ Americans.

The order builds on a previous executive order that Biden signed into law on his first day in office. The new executive action charges agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education, to release sample policies for states to adopt measures like comprehensive health care for LGBTQ+ patients and create “full inclusion” for LGBTQ+ youth.

Biden’s executive order also seeks to combat “conversion therapy,” a pseudo-religious practice intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; strengthen protections for LGBTQ+ foster youth (as well as parents who want to adopt them); expand family counseling services; improve eligibility standards for federal programs for LGBTQ+ families; and tackling social barriers like homelessness, among other measures.

At the Wednesday afternoon event, President Biden, who proclaimed that “Pride was back at the White House,” touted his administration for being “the most pro-equality administration in history.” The president noted that his White House has the most LGBTQ+-identifying officials of any administration. He added, “or any administration combined.” 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a White House daily press briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House June 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre held a daily press briefing to answer questions from members of the press. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Those appointments include Secretary Buttigieg, the first openly gay member of a presidential cabinet, Karine Jean-Pierre, who made history as the first Black and queer White House press secretary, and Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at HHS, who is the highest-ranking trans government official in American history.

“It’s important for people to see themselves and their elected leadership at every level of government,” U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) told theGrio. Torres made history last year as the first openly gay Afro-Latino to be sworn into Congress. 

“It is powerful to have openly LGBTQ representation at the highest levels of the federal government. Not only is it inspiring, [but] it can also be lifesaving because it expands the realm of what is possible,” said Torres.

He added, “It’s critically important that the LGBTQ community have a seat at every table, including the White House and the United States Congress.”

U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who, along with Torres, was elected as the first openly gay Black member of Congress in the 2020 elections, was present at the White House Pride Month event. Jones told theGrio that representation matters in terms of the “perspective and insights and expertise that LGBTQ+ people are able to bring to the policymaking table.” 

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) speaks during a House Judiciary Committee mark up hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on June 02, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Similarly, David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told theGrio that LGBTQ+ representation matters, not just for those who are members of the community, but also for those “who are cis-gendered, a heterosexual—[and] people who don’t even know what those terms mean or the importance of them—simply standing in opposition to those of us who are trans, queer and non-binary.”

While LGBTQ+ leaders and organizations praised President Biden for his executive order advancing LGBTQ+ equality, there’s a continued and shared concern for the community, particularly its youth, amid the more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ laws that have been passed or introduced across the country. Most of those bills seek to prohibit conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, as in the case of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” as well as ban trans youth from participating in school sports. 

“Children are being dragged into political fights,” said Johns. “We’re talking about children who are in the developmental phase…they don’t deserve to be dragged into this.”

Congressman Torres rejected arguments made by Republicans that such bills are intended to “protect” children. “We know that it does not protect children. It traumatizes them. It dehumanizes them. And it stigmatizes them and their families,” said the 34-year-old lawmaker. “We have to fight against these bills, which are manifestations of bigotry, which are assaults on the equality and humanity of the LGBTQ community.”

Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York, speaks at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on oversight of the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve coronavirus pandemic response on Capitol Hillon September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images)

Torres said this moment is “reminiscent” of when he was in high school, coming to terms with his own sexuality. 

“In 2004, George Bush and the Republican Party ran on a platform of opposing marriage equality in a whole host of states. It was part of their strategy,” recalled the congressman, who said today’s Republican Party is “embracing a reformulation of the same strategy” and “waging the same kind of culture war.” 

“The difference between then and now is that there’s a particular focus on the trans community,” he noted. 

Johns noted that there’s a distinct focus on Republicans pivoting “to an attack on schools as a central place where democracy is defended and where societies are remade.

“In Virginia, we saw [Gov. Glenn Youngkin] win successfully. You’ve also seen similar attacks that have been successful in Florida, in Alabama, and in Texas,” said Johns. “It’s turning out their base…and it’s a proven tactic to get voters who are operating on ignorance and hatred to turn out to vote.”

Congressman Jones lamented that he is afraid “things may get worse before they get better when it comes to justice and equity for the community.” It’s not just state legislatures that pose a threat to LGBTQ+ equality, he said, but also a conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court that could roll back progress obtained by the community. 

In this Oct. 8, 2019 file photo, protesters gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington where the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in the first case of LGBT rights since the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Jones has been a leading progressive voice in Congress who has co-sponsored legislation that would expand the Supreme Court by four seats. He also shared that, if given the opportunity during his time in office, he would like to see President Biden nominate the nation’s first openly LGBTQ+ Supreme Court justice. 

Congressman Jones praised Biden for his “tremendous” advocacy for the queer, trans and nonbinary community, adding that he particularly appreciated the president including “significant investments” in his budget for HHS to ensure the HIV-prevention drug, PrEP, is “available to everyone.” As he noted, the medication is “still elusive for so many, particularly Black and brown, queer people in this country.”

Johns, of the National Black Justice Coalition, said he would like to see the Biden administration go further in protecting the health of LGBTQ+ Americans by expanding Medicaid services for those who have “been denied access to critical, affirming lifesaving care at the state level.”

A major piece of legislation that would significantly expand federal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans is the Equality Act. The bill, which is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination in a range of public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The Equality Act is more important than ever because not everyone lives in a state that is pro-LGBTQ,” said Congressman Torres. “There are people who live in a state where you can lose something as fundamental as your housing or health care simply because of who you are and whom you love.”

In a proclamation signed last month declaring June Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, And Intersex Pride Month, President Biden urged Congress to pass the Equality Act. However, Republican senators and the Senate filibuster remain a roadblock for Democrats in passing the legislation and sending it to Biden’s desk for signature.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at an event celebrating Pride month in the East Room of the White House June 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Congressman Jones urged the president to call for abolishing the filibuster in order to pass the Equality Act. “The president has to articulate a path forward to passage of the Equality Act, and that path forward does not include begging 10 Republican members of the Senate to do anything in good conscience,” he told theGrio.  

Democrats are also at risk of losing their very slim majority in the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, making any chance of passing key legislation like the Equality Act unlikely in the next session of Congress. 

Despite the challenges that the community faces, there remains hope for a future where full equality is achieved for LGBTQ+ people. “We’re winning and we are going to win,” said Congressman Torres. “The long arc of history favors LGBTQ equality, and the next generation is overwhelmingly LGBTQ-inclusive. So history is on our side.”

At the end of his remarks at Wednesday’s Pride event, President Biden repeated a phrase he often used during his presidential campaign. “We’re in a battle for the very soul of this nation,” he said in a room filled with LGBTQ+ leaders. “When I look around this room…and all of you here today, it’s a battle I know we will win.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and Washington Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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