2021 was supposed to be the ‘worst year’ for LGBTQ rights — then came 2022

Last year, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, labeled 2021 the “worst year” for LGBTQ rights in modern U.S. history, citing a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures across the country. This year, the amount has nearly doubled, the group reported.

But as 2022 comes to a close, advocates say this surge of legislation is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the onslaught lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans have faced.

Over the past 12 months, they say, they have watched in horror as homophobic and transphobic slurs have become mainstream in political discourse and as threats of violence directed at the community have become something of the norm.

“The LGBTQ+ community is really under siege right now,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas. “We’re seeing attacks that are layered and very different from what we’ve experienced in the past.”

‘It wasn’t safe for me anymore’

Early on, 2022 was decidedly a rough year for LGBTQ rights. Within the first three months, the number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced had already skyrocketed to 238, eclipsing 2021’s historic tally of 191 such bills, according to the HRC. In total, the group said, more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in state legislatures so far this year. 

The vast majority of these bills have been introduced by Republican lawmakers, though most of them died in the legislative process. Roughly half of the proposed bills — and most of the enacted ones — specifically affect transgender Americans. The most successful policies have been those that restrict trans girls and women from participating on women’s sports teams. To date, 18 states have such sports laws, according to the Movement Advancement Project, which has been tracking the bills.

One bill that was successfully implemented, and gained national headlines for months, was Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The controversial legislation bans teachers from instructing students about sexual orientation or gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory school in Shady Hills, Fla. on Mar. 28.Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via AP file

Proponents of the measure repeatedly stressed that it is about giving parents more jurisdiction over their young children’s education. But critics and legal experts have said the broad language of the law could open school districts and teachers to unnecessary lawsuits.

To ensure that they are in compliance with the state, some public school districts have implemented wide-ranging policies that go beyond the parameters of the law. In June, for example, representatives of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association accused school officials of verbally warning educators not to wear rainbow articles of clothing and to remove pictures of their same-sex spouses from their desks and LGBTQ safe space stickers from classroom doors. The district’s legal department confirmed in a statement provided to the teachers’ association that staff members who come into contact with students in kindergarten through third grade were cautioned about LGBTQ issues.

The law even caused some LGBTQ teachers in the state’s public school system to quit the profession. 

Nicolette Solomon, who is a lesbian, taught fourth grade in Miami-Dade County for more than four years before quitting in February. She still works in education, as an operations specialist for an education software company, but she said she misses working directly with students.

“It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life,” Solomon, 28, said of quitting her teaching job. “I was that safe person for them, and I had to go because it wasn’t safe for me anymore to be in that school and to be teaching in Florida.”

Among this year’s bills targeting the LGBTQ community are measures that would restrict gender-affirming care for transgender minors. These types of laws would bar trans youths from receiving puberty blockers, hormone therapy or transition-related surgeries. 

Proponents of such measures argue that they would protect children from regretting transition-related treatments later in life. Opponents argue that restricting such access to care will exacerbate the already staggering rates of mental health issues plaguing trans youths, including disproportionate rates of suicide attempts.

Major medical associations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, have supported such care for transgender minors, with the AMA and APA calling it “medically necessary.” 

Laws restricting gender-affirming care have been implemented in four states: Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. However, judges in Alabama and Arkansas have temporarily barred those states’ laws from taking effect while court challenges against the laws continue. 

After failing to pass a bill that would restrict gender-affirming care through the state’s Legislature last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made history this year by placing the restrictions through state agencies. In February, he ordered Texans to report the parents of transgender minors to state authorities if it appeared the minors were receiving gender-affirming medical care. Abbott’s mandate came shortly after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion declaring the treatment as child abuse under state law.

Some Texas families with trans children say the directives have prompted them to flee the state.

“I know six, seven generation Texans who have left Texas and all of their families for the safety of their kids,” Martinez said. “Holidays are going to look very different this year, and that’s just sad.”

Many of those without the resources to leave have created contingency plans to avoid prosecution, Martinez said, adding that some parents have begun homeschooling their children.

“When I say terror, it’s not an overreaction,” Martinez said. “Parents are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, having to look over their shoulder constantly about who they can trust, who they cannot trust.”

Texas’ novel method of implementing restrictions on gender-affirming care was replicated in Florida, with the Sunshine State’s official medical board voting in October to bar such care for minors. It’s unclear, however, when the measure will take effect.

A ‘dangerous’ escalation

With a lot on the line for queer Americans, LGBTQ policy debate took a particularly heated turn this year.

For months, many right-wing lawmakers, media personalities and activists — including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — have repeatedly accused LGBTQ people and Democrats of “grooming,” “indoctrinating” and “sexualizing” children. The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers. 

The day after DeSantis, a Republican, signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, “grooming” was mentioned on Twitter nearly 8,000 times, compared with just 40 times on the first day of this year, according to Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic.

“The level of how heated the rhetoric is — and how incendiary it is — is something I had never really seen outside of extremist forums, and now it’s become almost mainstream on social media,” Caraballo said. “I just never thought it would escalate to this point.”

LGBTQ advocates, including Caraballo, have been ringing the alarm bells for months, warning that this type of language could lead to real-world threats and attacks.

When asked for comment about advocates’ assertions that Rep. Greene’s rhetoric has contributed to the violence and threats against LGBTQ Americans, Greene’s spokesman, Nick Dyer, called the accusations “defamatory.”

A representative for Gov. DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment regarding advocates’ assertions. 

In a segment on his show last week, Carlson mocked the Biden administration for hosting drag artist Marti G. Cummings at the White House to celebrate the passage of a same-sex marriage bill. Carlson took several of Cummings’ old tweets out of context to argue that Cummings and other drag performers are “creepy with kids.”

Cummings, who uses they and them pronouns, said that in the days following the segment, they received online messages from people calling them a “groomer,” “pedo” and “pervert,” on top of several graphic death threats. One social media user sent a direct message to Cummings that included a photograph of a hanging noose and wrote, “This is your future,” according to a screenshot Cummings shared with NBC News.

“As somebody who was a victim of child molestation, to hear somebody say, ‘Oh, you’re a groomer,’ it brings up trauma. It’s disgusting; it’s dangerous that they’re saying these things,” Cummings said. “Pundits on networks like Fox are using these talking points for ratings … They’re using it to incite fear within their viewers.”

A representative for Fox News did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

Carlson’s segment slamming Cummings and other prominent LGBTQ figures aired several hours after the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on “The Rise of Anti-LGBTQI+ Extremism and Violence in the United States.” During the hearing, survivors of the Nov. 19 mass shooting at a Colorado gay bar blamed “hateful rhetoric” and baseless accusations from elected officials and activists for the attack, which left five dead and 17 others wounded. 

Caraballo called the shooting “almost predictable.”

“After Club Q, I had a bit of a breakdown,” Caraballo said. “I was on the record earlier this year essentially saying this is where this rhetoric will lead … I would have loved to have been wrong.”

Law enforcement officials investigate at the Club Q nightclub
Law enforcement officials investigate at the Club Q nightclub on Nov. 22, 2022, following a mass shooting.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

A recent report by the Crowd Counting Consortium, a research group that tracks the size of political protests, found a sharp escalation in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations this year. It also found a spike in the share of total right-wing protests with anti-LGBTQ claims: The monthly share had stayed at or close to zero from early 2017 to the middle of this year, and then it started to creep up, reaching 16% in September. The report also found that a substantial — and increasing — share of the anti-LGBTQ protesters have been armed.

Notably, police arrested 31 people at an annual LGBTQ Pride in the Park event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in June. The suspects, who were affiliated with a white nationalist group, were booked on suspicion of conspiracy to riot. And in August, Boston’s Children’s Hospital made national headlines when it received a bomb threat for providing gender-affirming care to transgender youths.

The Department of Homeland Security raised concerns about potential threats to the LGBTQ, Jewish and migrant communities from violent extremists inside the U.S. in a terrorism advisory bulletin last month. The bulletin said some extremists have been inspired by recent attacks, including the Colorado shooting at Club Q.

Since then, a gay California lawmaker received a bomb threat laced with homophobic tropes and rhetoric, his second bomb threat of the year. And last week, a group of protesters vandalized the home and office of a gay member of the New York City Council, Erik Bottcher. Bottcher, who had attended a Drag Story Hour event at a public library two days earlier, said his office building’s hallway and the sidewalk outside his apartment building had been defaced with homophobic graffiti. Two women were arrested for trespassing, the council member said.

Recent data tracking anti-LGBTQ protests and attacks shows that drag performers have been targeted at disproportionate rates.

A report released by LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD days after the Club Q shooting found that drag events faced at least 141 protests and significant threats in 47 states so far this year. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, a doughnut shop was vandalized and firebombed by a Molotov cocktail in two separate incidents after it hosted a drag event in October, according to KFOR and KJRH, NBC affiliates in Oklahoma.

The incidents, coupled with the mass shooting at Club Q, prompted several high-profile drag performers to heighten their security protocols. Several previously told NBC News that they’ve hired armed guards for their tours.

A time to ‘stand together’

LGBTQ advocates caution that although it was a year of extremes, there were also several major wins for LGBTQ Americans. 

A record number of LGBTQ candidates — at least 400 — won their races in this year’s midterm elections, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that advocates for queer candidates.

Justin Unga, the director of strategic initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign, also pointed to the worse-than-expected midterm election results for far-right candidates. Those losses came after some conservative groups ramped up misleading or inflammatory campaign ads targeting transgender rights.

“This is a moment for the LGBTQ+ community to stand together and a reminder for politicians that if they come for us, we will come for them at the ballot box,” Unga said. “This should be an empowering moment as much as it is a wake-up call to the LGBTQ community.”

Aparna Shrivastava, right, takes a photo with Shelby Teeter after President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Ac
Aparna Shrivastava, right, takes a photo with Shelby Teeter during the Respect for Marriage Act signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13.Andrew Harnik / AP file

Unga also pointed to the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages. The historic piece of legislation passed both chambers of Congress with unexpected bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Joe Biden this month.

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