A Spellbinding Week: What Are the Gains and Losses for LGBT Rights, and What Battles Lie Ahead?

04/02/2015 10:59 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Bill Clark via Getty Images

It's been an extraordinary week for LGBT people in America, as we saw a battle play out in the media that made all of us who support equality -- lesbian, transgender, gay, bisexual, and straight -- feel proud. Major celebrities, media personalities, prominent politicians, and huge corporations -- even some on Fox News -- were standing up against bigots and speaking out for equality. It was exciting, even dazzling.

But the events also, once again, left some LGBT activists spellbound, claiming some sort of major victory because we'd done well in a media battle. And we did do well, and there's lots of praise to go around. Our movement fought back hard. But we need to keep things in perspective. It's true that, as with Arizona early last year, we were the ones, this time, who raised and framed the story first in the media, and framed it properly, before the extremists on the right could. Two conservative GOP governors were put on the spot, with big business as well as grassroots activists and average Americans all across the country putting on the pressure. GOP Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, an evangelical Christian and a true believer who perhaps lived in a bubble, was caught completely by surprise and found himself pulled apart by forces within the Republican Party.

Probably more than anything else, his catastrophic interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, in which he wouldn't answer basic questions about how the "religious freedom" law he'd signed could be used to discriminate, turned the tide in the media debate. And then Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas was forced to send a similar bill back to his GOP-controlled legislature after the uproar, claiming that his son -- who'd written a heartfelt Facebook post coming out against the law -- had him reevaluating, as if he'd never spoken to his son before. Clearly, Hutchinson was scrambling, and the idea of turning to family and internal discussion was the least damaging way to make the argument to "family values" Christians, though surely they're still infuriated.

And that was all great. But in the end, the truth remains: Arkansas passed a draconian bill several weeks ago while the largest gay group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) -- and Walmart and much of the American media -- remained silent as many activists implored them to speak up. That bill prevented local ordinances protecting LGBT rights from being passed. It was worded in a way that legal experts believe could withstand court scrutiny, and the only way many activists believe LGBT people in Arkansas will attain any rights is through a statewide bill, which seems unlikely, or a federal law, which seems many years off.

Sure, Hutchinson was forced to retreat on a "religious freedom" bill, but that bill was actually completely unnecessary for any business in Arkansas to boot gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people out of the door -- because there are not, and can't be under the new law he signed in February, any local protections for LGBT people. In Indiana, the "religious freedom" bill, as a statewide bill, supersedes local anti-discrimination ordinances in Indianapolis and elsewhere, so in that state it does have a major impact. But in Arkansas, they'd already done away with the ability to pass local anti-bias laws, so the "religious freedom" bill was just a greedy bit of overkill on Hutchinson's part to pander to bigots.

Sure, it's nice to see that it blew up in his face. But let's please keep in mind that the facts on the ground do not change for LGBT people in Arkansas after the media spotlight moves on. And our groups and our allies were silent a few weeks ago for reasons we still don't know. Was it because HRC saw it as a loss and didn't want to be on the losing side? Was it Walmart flexing its muscle and keeping gay groups, whom it supports, including financially, quiet, because of some other business interests? Was it all bad strategy -- working behind the scenes, and ultimately having dismal failure? Or were those in the business and LGBT establishment asleep at the switch, which seems difficult to believe amid the social media outcry from activists imploring them to wake up?

Whatever the reason, we had a fearful, timid, silent approach at that time -- as opposed to the approach this week -- and we lost big. Had we put up a fierce fight and raised the alarms then, we might have seen the current week's debacle for the GOP play out at that time, and we might have stopped what was, in the end, the most harmful of all these bills from becoming law. And that media uproar, with people like Stephanopoulos and CNN's Chris Cuomo crushing religious-right figures, might then have stopped Indiana legislators dead in their tracks in passing that state's "religious freedom" bill -- or might have broken through Governor Pence's bubble and stopped him from signing it -- and likely would have stopped Hutchinson from going on to the "religious freedom" bill in Arkansas too.

Instead, a terrible bill became law in Arkansas. And a bill in Indiana got passed, which may or may not have an adequate fix (though even a mention of "sexual orientation" or "gender identity" in the amendment will infuriate our enemies). And it doesn't really matter what they do with Arkansas' "religious freedom" bill, as I've explained. So let's spare the celebrations even if they make the Arkansas bill mirror the federal Religious Restoration Freedom Act -- which is now itself something terrible, since it has been used to take away women's rights and was upheld in that effort in the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. Meanwhile, we had GOP presidential candidates drawing the battle lines for 2016, immediately backing the "religious freedom" law in Indiana.

Months ago, after marriage equality began in Florida, when Jeb Bush said we should "respect" the law with regard to gay marriage but that we must also "safeguard religious liberty," HRC lauded him for the statement on gay marriage -- twice, including with a fawning front page Washington Post interview with HRC Vice President Fred Sainz, who talked of Jeb having been his neighbor -- without hitting him hard on the dog whistle to the right, allowing him to get away with the "religious liberty" language. Bush was among the first potential presidential contenders to support Governor Pence and Indiana's law. (HRC rightly slammed him, although that should have been done months ago.) And we have the evangelical right energized and ready to hold the GOP candidates to their positions, ensuring that gay bashing goes on into the 2016 race for the presidency.

Yeah, we won a major media battle and got amazing support. We should thank people like lesbian longtime journalist Kerry Eleveld and others for lighting a firecracker under HRC with much-needed, intense criticism in recent weeks for its lack of a strategy. It was wonderful, too, to see allies support us, exciting to behold. And hopefully we learned a lot about holding our enemies' -- and gay groups' -- feet to the fire. But in larger frame, LGBT citizens lost protection from discrimination. So, yes, be proud of our work this week. But there's so much more to do. Don't think our opponents aren't already regrouping and calibrating their next attack, moving on to other states. We cannot fool ourselves, dazzled by the events, into thinking that because we won a media battle, we have won the war.

Michelangelo Signorile's new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, will be published April 7 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.