It is not every day that a former student and now good friend gets engaged at the White House, but, on December 13, 2022, Rod popped the question to his partner of eight years, Alex, at the White House signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act. It was great to see their tweet (of course a tweet) and then to read the Religion News Service story about their engagement.
For me, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the day had double significance—not only did good friends become engaged, but now a federal statute requires states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages. The act also invalidates the Defense of Marriage Act which had defined marriage as between “one man, one woman” and had permitted states to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Passage of the act was a positive note to end 2022.
And yet, many challenges remain in 2023. Despite the Respect for Marriage Act, should the Supreme Court overturn its Obergefell v. Hodges decision (2015) that established a federal constitutional right to marry someone of the same sex, then that right would be in question in 35 states that have either a state statute, a state constitutional amendment or both prohibiting same sex marriages. The Obergefell decision, decided by only a 5-4 majority, was authored by Justice Kennedy whose seat now is filled by Justice Gorsuch. There is at least one justice who thinks the Court should revisit Obergefell, namely Justice Thomas, who said as much in his concurrence in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision which overturned the fifty-year precedent of Roe v. Wade.
The Court remains a focus for other reasons. The very same week that the House passed the final version of the Respect for Marriage Act the Court heard arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis in which a Colorado web designer and evangelical Christian who does not support same sex marriage is arguing that she should not be required to design a wedding website for same sex couples because to do so would violate her freedom of speech. Colorado law prohibits businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ+ persons. Court observers predict that the conservative majority will side with the web designer.
And then there is the wave of state legislation and local school regulations targeting the rights of transgender and nonbinary persons. A Washington Post article noted that in 2022 more anti-transgender laws were proposed than in any other year, laws which would limit participation on school sports teams to use of bathrooms to gender-affirming medical care.
Maryland, however, continues to protect its transgender and non-binary youth. In February 2022, the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee unfavorably reported out HB 757 also known as the “Save Women’s Sports Act” which would have barred transgender youth from participating on sports teams that reflected their gender identity and not their biological sex.
In May, our state enacted a law which requires private schools that receive state aid to not discriminate against students based on “race, ethnicity, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”
Even more sobering than laws that target trans and non-binary youth is the rate of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. Just three days after the Respect for Marriage Act was signed Henry Berg-Bousseau, the 24-year-old, transgender son of Dr. Karen Berg, a Kentucky state senator , committed suicide. Henry had been a deputy press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT+ advocacy group. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, “45% of LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year” and “fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming.”
And the violence against the LGBTQ+ community continues. Right-wing militia groups, such as the Patriot Front, have targeted the LGBTQ+ community. This past June, thirty-one Patriot Front members were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho before they were going to interfere with a Pride Festival there. And, in November, at the Colorado Springs LGBT club, Club Q, an assumed haven for the LGBTQ community, five persons were gunned down, among them two transgender persons.
Safe havens are so important. I was encouraged to read that the three LGBTQ+ organizations at Washington College are active again after the effects of Covid on campus clubs. I hope that Kent County LGBTQ+ youth have safe havens where they can be who they are and be celebrated for who they are.
I began this piece with Rod and Alex. Let me end with them. On June 26, 2015, the three of us were outside the Supreme Court with hundreds of others, waiting to hear what the Court had decided in the Obergefell case. I had flown in from Spokane, Washington where I was teaching and was at the Court with a dear friend. I’ll never forget the cheers that erupted when the crowd learned of the outcome. It was a joyful moment. The signing of the Respect for Marriage Act on December 13 was also a joyful moment. Yes, much has changed for the better, but meanness and discrimination and violence continue. Much work remains to achieve full equality.
Kathryn Lee (Ph.D., J.D.), is the former chair of the Political Science Department and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. Kathryn was recently profiles in the New Yorker which can be read here. She retired to Chestertown last July.