Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans made tremendous strides toward equality in 2015. But their fight is far from over. Take a look a some of the year’s most important LGBT stories, and the ones you’re likely to hear about in the years to come.
The Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 to make marriage equality the law of the land was not only the biggest achievement for LGBT equality in the year 2015; it was the biggest achievement of the entire movement thus far, culminating decades of litigation and activism that began in earnest with the Stonewall riots nearly 50 years ago. Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the landmark 5-4 decision, writing that the Constitution grants same-sex couples “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” Soon after, gay and lesbian couples began marrying in all 50 states. “Sometimes, there are days like this,” President Obama said after the decision was handed down, “when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
Not everyone was happy with the decision, however. In the year’s most high-profile display of official resistance to nationwide marriage equality, Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis was sent to jail in September for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds. Her case captivated the nation, becoming a lightning rod for so-called “religious freedom” advocates and driving a wedge between the Republican presidential field. Both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were on hand when Davis was released from jail five days after being incarcerated, although Huckabee nabbed the better photo op – he held Davis’ hands triumphantly overhead as the song “Eye of the Tiger” blared on loudspeakers for dozens of her supporters. Since her incarceration, Davis’ office has been issuing marriage licenses without her name, title, or authority – alterations that are still being litigated in federal court. As for Huckabee, he was sued last month by the guitarist of the band Survivor for playing “Eye of the Tiger” without permission.
Indiana’s religious freedom bill
Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s decision to sign into law the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in March was one of the more remarkable stories of the year, producing a national backlash against the Hoosier State fueled by individuals and organizations as varied as gamers, celebrities, athletes, tech leaders and even NASCAR. Supporters insisted the measure was designed to protect people’s religious beliefs from unnecessary government intrusion. But opponents said otherwise, arguing the law would serve as a license to discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds. Pence, who at the time was considered a potential dark horse candidate for president, ended up signing a “fix” to the law after only a week, stipulating that the RFRA could not be used by businesses to discriminate against patrons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
When the Olympic-champion-turned-reality-TV-star formerly known as Bruce Jenner told ABC’s Diane Sawyer back in April, “For all intents and purposes, I’m a woman,” it marked a watershed moment in transgender visibility and, ultimately, acceptance. Two months later, Jenner revealed her full physical transformation on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, wearing a white corset with the headline “Call me Caitlyn” splashed across the top. The cover and her subsequent reality show “I Am Cait” were met with some controversy. LGBT advocates were quick to point out, for example, that most transgender women couldn’t afford the glamorous wardrobe or expensive facial feminization surgery that transformed Jenner, while some feminist leaders felt that Jenner’s idea of a woman – cleavage-boosting corset, heavy make-up and all – promoted stereotypes they had fought for decades to dispel. Like it or not, though, Jenner put transgender rights on the map like never before. Earlier this month, in fact, she was named Barbara Walters’ most fascinating person of 2015, and officially dethroned her ultra-famous stepdaughter, Kim Kardashian, as Microsoft Bing’s most-searched celebrity of 2015.
Transgender inclusion in the military
2015 won’t be the year that approximately 15,500 transgender troops currently in the active-duty military could finally serve openly; but it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of one of the last gender or sexuality-based barriers to military service. In July, Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered a six-month study aimed at formally lifting the military’s longstanding ban on transgender service members – regulations Carter said were “outdated” and “causing uncertainty that distract commanders from our missions.” The announcement came five years after President Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the military’s former ban on openly gay and lesbian troops. According to a draft timeline released in August, the Pentagon’s ban on transgender service members is set to end by May 27, 2016.
Amid the celebration over nationwide marriage equality, a grim refrain began to circulate throughout the country: In most states, a same-sex couple could get married on a Saturday and then fired for being gay on a Monday. While current law offers some recourse to the same-sex couple in that scenario – they can file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, which has ruled that federally prohibited sex discrimination covers discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity – it is true that LGBT Americans have no explicit federal protections from discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations. The Equality Act, introduced this year, would have changed that, but the bill never went anywhere in the Republican-controlled Congress. In lieu of a federal law, LGBT advocates have been pushing for nondiscrimination protections at the state and local level – a strategy that has proved successful in over 200 cities so far, and 18 states. But the effort hit a major snag last month, when transphobic attacks warning about sexaul predators preying on girls in the bathroom managed to sink a broad civil rights ordinance in Houston, Texas, known as HERO.
Religious freedom laws
As LGBT advocates focus on implementing new nondiscrimination protections in the new year, their opponents will undoubtedly push for “religious freedom” legislation intended to carve out exemptions and weaken those equality measures. Such laws could come in the form of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the state from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs unless the state can prove it’s relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest. Or it could come in the form of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which would bar the government from taking “discriminatory action” against a person, business, or organization that “acts in accordance” with a religious opposition to same-sex marriage. States could also push for broadly written “religious freedom” exemption bills that allow individuals, businesses or even government employees – like clerks and magistrates – to turn away same-sex couples hoping to wed. 2015 saw nearly 90 bills introduced across the country that would have allowed religion to be used as justification to discriminate against LGBT people, according to Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. She said in a recent press call that she was “preparing for another aggressive push” from LGBT opponents in 2016.
2015 was a particularly deadly year for transgender people in America. According to a report released last month by the Human Rights Campaign, at least 21 transgender people were murdered since January – more than in any other year that advocates have recorded. Nearly all of the victims were transgender women of color. Lawmakers are now starting to turn their attention to the disproportionate level of violence faced by transgender people – particularly transgender women of color. In fact, on November 17, members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus held the first forum on transgender violence in history and announced the formation of a Transgender Equality Task Force. But more work will undoubtedly have to be done in the years to come in order to reduce the high rates of violence experienced within the transgender community, as well as the underlying causes that help drive it: unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and policing.