Election 2024

This election year will be taxing for LGBTQ+ folks. Here’s how we can still choose joy.

Happy young girls celebrating gay pride festival - LGBT community concept
Photo: Shutterstock

Election years can feel like an ongoing headache for all Americans, but with mounting attacks and increasingly hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ+ folks, they can feel especially draining on our community’s mental health. 

As politicians with increasing air time continue to embrace perspectives framing our humanity as a political stance, simply looking at our smartphones or turning on the news can be dangerous for our mental health.

Of course, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community are nothing new; they’re a cyclical and persistent trend. This most recent period accelerated as right-wing politicians decided to start targeting trans healthcare a few years back, eventually going after anything LGBTQ+ with the newly packaged (and tired) propaganda that gay and trans people want to indoctrinate children.

Surrounded by hate on all sides

Last year saw a record-breaking number of bills targeting LGBTQ+ folks – at 510 total. As of March 12, 2024, the ACLU has tracked a staggering 478 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the U.S. already introduced this year. 

Many of these bills target the trans community and focus on issues like banning gender-affirming care, legally redefining sex to exclude trans folks, anti-trans sports bans, LGBTQ+ curriculum bans, bathroom bans, and the like. While many won’t pass, their mere existence, along with the ensuing legislative debates, can be harmful. 

“I think it does matter to have all these bills proposed, even when they don’t pass, because it creates a climate in each state and nationally of just repeatedly telling LGBTQ people and LGBTQ youth, ‘You are not welcome here in these ways,’” Harper Seldin, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, told LGBTQ Nation. “Even knowing that that is on the table is its own kind of harm.”

Casey Pick, the Trevor Project’s Director of Law and Policy, explained that these are not truly grassroots efforts, but rather coordinated attacks from national organizations. As such, anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been able to spread quickly through state legislatures around the country. 

“To our community, and young folks in particular, it can really feel that it’s everywhere, it’s constant,” Pick said, “especially when you’re seeing so many bills that are being introduced, debated, and tragically, too many of them are passed.”

The onslaught of legislation is incredibly taxing on the mental health of LGBTQ+ people, especially youth. 

The Trevor Project’s 2023 National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People found that nearly one in three LGBTQ+ young people (ages 13-24) said their mental health was poor most of the time due to anti-LGBTQ+ policies and legislation. For trans and nonbinary youth, specifically, 86% said anti-trans bills and debates have negatively impacted their mental health.

The zeitgeist of fear

While the bills that pass may not be the worst of the bunch, they are still very extreme and essentially invite Republican lawmakers to continue upping the ante as time goes on, Seldin said. 

Citing curriculum bans, Seldin said many of these laws have incredibly weak footing when it comes to First Amendment protections. But passed or not, they encourage self-censorship, which Seldin explained “has its own kind of pernicious way of telling people, ‘We’re not gonna even bother to tell you that you’re lesser than; you’re just going to know it.’”

These bills and the politicians who sponsor them also assist in creating a climate in which others feel empowered to police the actions of LGBTQ+ people. Of course, these challenges are an everyday reality for LGBTQ+ folks in the United States, but an election year sees these conversations escalate even further.

“We are anticipating and seeing that folks are trying to mobilize their bases on both sides,” Seldin said. “To the extent that Republican lawmakers think that these restrictions are the kinds of things that will mobilize their base, an election year is the time to do it.”

The one thing they can’t legislate

These days it feels like we’re in a regression, that our community’s progress is slipping. Seldin argued this is a “both and” scenario, in that it is both getting worse and support for the LGBTQ+ community is getting stronger.

“You’re really seeing regional and national solidarity with affected families everywhere, from national orgs to grassroots and mutual aid, especially the trans and nonbinary community trying to take care of itself in a way that is really empowering and should give people hope,” Seldin said. 

“People will always still have community, and those are places where it is always a good use of time and effort to build that kind of strength and resilience because we will always have that … You can’t legislate that away.”

Pick similarly emphasized the “tremendous gains” the community has seen in recent years, including a better understanding of what it means to be LGBTQ+ and particularly increased literacy around trans and nonbinary identities and issues.

It’s a pattern we see in many civil rights movements over time — as one group tends to gain more power and equity, they are pushed down by majority groups out of fear.

When in doubt, choose yourself

Many LGBTQ+ people are well aware of these trends, though it doesn’t change the current reality we face, and it doesn’t mean we can stop fighting. Nevertheless, it can feel incredibly challenging to engage in activism when we are constantly bombarded with messaging that questions our humanity and our right to exist authentically.

“Nobody needs a martyr,” Pick said, emphasizing that it’s difficult to stay active and effectively advocate for your community if you’re not taking care of yourself first. “There are many of us doing this work, so if you need to step back, know that there are others who, in that moment, will be stepping forward. In those moments, when you’re able to be one of the ones who steps forward, that’s maybe when you pivot to action.”

Both Pick and Seldin said that engaging on a local level can be a practical way to make a direct impact. As we also tend to get so much of our information from social media, it can be helpful to pivot to a more reliable news source to obtain a more balanced, realistic perspective, Pick said.

“This is a really challenging time. I’m going to be real about that,” Pick said. “So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, scared — those feelings are absolutely valid.”

It’s a balance, and while it can feel tempting to disengage entirely, Seldin said that it’s still imperative to pay attention.

“The only thing worse than these laws passing is when they’re passed without a fight,” Seldin said. “It’s important for us to stay in it and to stay involved and active, even when it feels like it’s almost too much.”

Find the joy

Ultimately, Seldin believes we will win the legal battles against the LGBTQ+ community, though he emphasized that it will be an ongoing process — as it always has been.

“Folks need to continue to build community and seek joy and hope in their communities. We will have that no matter what. We’ve had that under legal regimes in the U.S. that had been much more hostile to LGBTQ+ people. And so, I think that that continues to be true.”

LGBTQ+ folks may feel constantly surrounded by hatred and strife and may feel immense pressure to stay engaged and attentive as a community. But these worries undoubtedly sit beside beacons of hope that we are paving our way toward a better future. 

In the midst of these conflicting messages, Pick also suggested we should choose to seek out joy as a means to fight against the ongoing hostility. In many ways, she said, the LGBTQ+ community has more allies than ever, but the politicians on the right looking to demonize us are often some of the loudest voices.

“It’s important that we maintain our perspective of just how few these loud voices are compared to a larger number of perhaps quieter but more accepting voices,” Pick said. “Those are the people that we need to hear speak up, and those are the people that LGBTQ young people need to take refuge in and find comfort with when it feels like the loud voices of hate are winning. Because in the end, they aren’t going to win.”

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