Biden & Trump, Pete Buttigieg, Elliot Page… Here’s the top 10 LGBTQ stories of 2020

Joe Biden/Aimee Stephens/Pete Buttigieg/J.K. Rowling
Joe Biden/Aimee Stephens/Pete Buttigieg/J.K. Rowling Photo: Shutterstock/ACLU

As 2020 is about to end, LGBTQ Nation looks back at the most important LGBTQ stories of the year. What are the stories that we reported on this past year that people will still be talking about in 20, 30, 40, or 50 years?

Here’s our top 10. Tell us in the comments below which stories – on this list or others we didn’t include – were most important to you this year.

10. Richard Grenell made history with temporary Cabinet-level appointment

Out former ambassador Richard Grenell attempts to persuade LGBTQ voters to choose President Donald Trump in the 2020 election in a video for the Log Cabin Republicans.

In February, Donald Trump made U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell acting Director of National Intelligence, a Cabinet-level position he filled for two months while the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for the position, John Ratcliffe.

While he didn’t get confirmed by the Senate, wasn’t expected to manage an executive department, served for about two months, and wasn’t in the presidential line of succession… this was a historic first since no out LGBTQ person had ever held a Cabinet-level position before. The first out LGBTQ member of the Cabinet who actually gets appointed and approved by the Senate will also be a historic first, but a historic first with an asterisk. This item on this list is that asterisk.

Grenell left the administration in May and went on to help get Republicans elected and worked for an anti-LGBTQ Christian conservative organization.

9. Supreme Court justices show willingness to overturn marriage equality as Amy Coney Barrett gets confirmed to the Court

Amy Coney Barrett at her 2017 confirmation hearings for a federal judgeship.

In 2015, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land in its historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision, and many people thought that it was a settled matter as it would become normalized.

Instead, conservatives have spent years attacking many of the rights associated with marriage when it comes to same-sex couples, often arguing that businesses should not be required to sell their products if they’re going to be used at a same-sex couple’s wedding, even if state or local law bans discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito laid bare the intent of that reasoning this past October, arguing that marriage equality violated the First Amendment because “religious adherents” who oppose marriage equality have been called “bigots, making their religious liberty concerns that much easier to dismiss.”

While the argument isn’t exactly convincing – people are being called names for opposing equal rights, so equal rights must be taken away? – at least two current Supreme Court justices agree with it and Senate Republicans rushed to replace longtime LGBTQ ally Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett, who opposes marriage equality.

This was a stark reminder that none of these advances are safe.

8. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and a whole bunch of state-level Republican lawmakers try to ban transgender girls from sports

Kelly Loeffler being sworn in by Mike Pence
White House

Republicans over the last several years decided that attacking transgender people – and, specifically, transgender girls and women who want to participate in school sports – was a winning issue at the polls.

So Republicans in state office filed dozens of bills this year restricting transgender people’s rights in athletics. Idaho actually passed one such bill into law – the bill even allowed competitors to challenge a student-athlete’s gender and force her to undergo genital exams and a DNA test to “prove” her gender – but it is currently being held up in federal court.

Republicans at the federal level also joined this trend, with Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introducing similar bills in Congress. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also filed a bill to ban transgender girls and women from school sports as a parting shot as she leaves elected office.

Perhaps these bills won’t pass their respective legislatures, the Idaho law will be overturned in court, and this entire matter will be a footnote in history. But with the amount of work Republicans are putting into attacking transgender girls and women – Trump’s Department of Education has threatened to pull funding from some schools that don’t work hard enough to ban trans girls from sports – it seems unlikely that these attacks will stop this year.

7. Ellen DeGeneres loses popularity and “Queen of Nice” title after dozens of former employees come forward with “toxic workplace” accusations

Ellen on the phone with Michelle Obama

To say this was not a banner year for Ellen would be an understatement.

She faced accusations of not being nice to guests on her show, which were followed by accusations of not treating her workers correctly during the pandemic, which were then followed by dozens of former employees telling the media that Ellen’s show is a “toxic workplace” where sexual harassment runs rampant.

She fired several producers who were accused of mistreating workers and promised to do better as her show came back for its latest season.

Ellen is still one of the most famous out lesbians in the country and homophobia has profoundly affected her career. How she is seen by the public affects LGBTQ people.

6. The Trump administration releases an official memo explaining how to spot a transgender woman

Ben Carson and Donald Trump

The Trump administration has repeatedly attacked LGBTQ rights over the last four years, but one attack stood out for its particular cruelty this year: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rolled back a rule that banned homeless shelters from refusing to serve transgender people, during both a monumental recession and a global pandemic.

Not only that, HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s department issued a memo that explained to homeless shelters receiving federal funding just how they could spot a transgender woman who might try to sneak in to avoid spending the night in the streets. The memo told shelters to look for “factors such as height, the presence (but not the absence) of facial hair, the presence of an Adam’s apple, and other physical characteristics which, when considered together, are indicative of a person’s biological sex.”

The policy was meant to advance religious freedom, according to Carson, but instead it attacked transgender people’s appearances and made it clear just how much bigotry actually motivates the administration’s attacks.

Carson himself has been attacking transgender people for years, calling transgender women “big, hairy men” and even told Congress that equal rights for transgender people would violate cisgender people’s rights.

5. Academy Award-nominated actor Elliot Page comes out as transgender

Elliot Page's Instagram post thanking fans

Elliot Page came out as transgender earlier this month, making him one of the most – if not the most – famous transgender people in the country. He got congratulated by no less than Hillary Clinton on his announcement.

“I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot,” he wrote in a statement shared with fans on social media. “I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life.”

Known for his work in Juno, X-Men, Inception, and The Umbrella Academy, Page has been out as queer for years and has been a very visible and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ equality. What he does with his platform is up to him, but even seeing a transgender person with his level of fame can inspire and educate so many people.

4. One of the world’s most famous authors, J.K. Rowling, became a staunch anti-transgender activist

J.K. Rowling

While there were indications in the past that J.K. Rowling didn’t much appreciate transgender people and explicitly showed her support for transphobia at the very end of 2019, 2020 saw the author of the best-selling book series in the history of the world attack transgender equality repeatedly.

There are just too many instances to list here: Rowling started writing threads of tweets for her 14 million followers that attacked transgender identities as fake, wrote a rambling essay where she compared the existence of transgender women to domestic violence, showed support for conversion therapy for transgender people, and even plugged a disgusting website that sells transphobic mugs and pins.

When she faced criticism, she claimed that she was just exercising her “free speech”… before she threatened legal action to shut down critics and even forced a children’s news website to apologize to her publicly.

While many celebrities criticized Rowling, others came out in support of Rowling’s transphobia – claiming she was being silenced – while she published a book about a man who dresses up as a woman so that he can get close to women and kill them.

Rowling is one of the most-read and most popular authors of the early 21st century and her words are going to have a far-reaching impact, as tens of millions of people who don’t know any transgender people listen to Rowling’s opinions about them. She has already claimed that the vast majority of her fans agree with her, a scary thought for supporters of transgender equality.

3. Joe Biden beat the most anti-transgender president in U.S. history by running the most pro-transgender campaign in U.S. history

Washington, DC, USA 7/11/2020 joe biden and kamala harris
VP Brothers / Shutterstock

Since he got to the White House in 2017, Donald Trump and his administration have relentlessly attacked LGBTQ rights and protections.

And they attacked transgender people with particular gusto. Trump banned transgender people from the military; published a long report on why anti-transgender discrimination is OK; rolled back protections for transgender people in schools, homeless shelters, health care, and other areas; and ask courts to legalize discrimination against transgender people.

Joe Biden signaled that he would be different from Trump on LGBTQ issues generally and transgender equality specifically. He laid out a detailed plan for how he wants his administration to address legal protections for LGBTQ people, he has spoken about violence against transgender women of color and said “trans lives matter,” and he promised to “flat out change” anti-transgender rules the Trump administration passed over the last four years.

And then he became the first president-elect in U.S. history to mention transgender people in his victory speech.

2. The first out LGBTQ Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg won Iowa’s primary

Pete Buttigieg

In February, Pete Buttigieg became the first out LGBTQ person to win a state in a major party’s presidential primary when he won 26.2% in Iowa’s caucuses and 14 convention delegates.

His candidacy was historic – he kissed his husband as he announced it – and stirred up anti-gay animus in the media and among voters. He never hid his sexual orientation and brought his experiences with homophobia to a nationally televised presidential debate stage for the first time.

Buttigieg ultimately ended his campaign and endorsed Joe Biden, but his campaign normalized seeing LGBTQ people in a new, and highly visible, context for many Americans.

1. The Supreme Court extended federal civil rights job protections to LGBTQ people in Bostock v. Clayton County

Aimee Stephens, Gerald Bostock, Donald Zarda

Three LGBTQ people who were fired from their jobs in the last decade took their cases to court and, this past June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which bans job discrimination “because of sex” – bans discrimination against LGBTQ people.

The decision is huge by itself: firing LGBTQ people just because of who they are is now illegal in the U.S. under federal law.

It’s also important because of the legal argument that the Supreme Court accepted in the majority opinion, that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is, by definition, a form of discrimination based on sex. The same reasoning can be applied to other areas of the law, and LGBTQ advocates are already making those arguments.

Bostock v. Clayton Co. is one of the biggest LGBTQ legal victories in the history of the United States, as important as Lawrence v. Texas (which legalized homosexuality in all 50 states) and Obergefell v. Hodges (which legalized marriage equality across the country). People will still be talking about this case for decades to come because it is and will be materially relevant as the country continues to move forward on LGBTQ equality.

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