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How a Ferocious Backlash to LGBT Equality Is in Full Force While Leaders Have No Strategy

02/20/2016 10:44 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2016
Michael Rowley via Getty Images

In South Dakota, Governor Dennis Daugaard is right this moment mulling over a bill sent to his desk by the legislature that would bar transgender students -- kids often facing bullying and discrimination -- from using bathrooms or locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. The bill defines such facilities as "designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex" and federal officials say it violates federal law, specifically Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. South Dakota would be the first place to pass such a law, but it certainly doesn't look like the last.

In Georgia and Mississippi, new "religious liberties" bills that would allow government workers, taxpayer-funded groups and businesses whose owners or operators oppose gay marriage to discriminate againt gays, have advanced. Legislators in over twenty other states are pursuing similar actions. And in Texas, a new Kim Davis is on the horizon, as Molly Criner, the clerk of rural Irion County, says she may not give out marriage licenses to gay couples (no couples have apparently yet come to get one). She testified last week before a Texas legislative committee. "This is going to be something that violates my oath," she claimed.

A backlash against LGBT equality is in full swing, eight months after marriage equality came to the entire nation, and it's not just happening in very conservative places. In Houston, a city which had a lesbian mayor and prided itself on inclusiveness, a ballot measure rescinded the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance with an overwhelming majority last November, as opponents targeted transgender people with a campaign of hate and "bathroom panic" via television ads.

LGBT leaders not only didn't have a plan then, they've still not figured out how to deal with bathroom panic and the right's age-old tactic of exploiting people's fears about their children with regard to the presence of gay or transgender people.

More than that, some gay leaders even thought that "compromise" on civil rights was the answer, only to be duped. In Utah, a "compromise" with Mormon leaders and Mormon politicians on an LGBT rights bill -- much criticized by many grass roots LGBT activists -- was agreed upon last year. It included broad religious exemptions, and did not include protections in public accommodations at all, but was hailed by the governor and the ACLU. This supposedly was about making peace with the LDS church. But months later the church instituted a policy which condemned children of same-sex couples who are Mormon and targeted the parents for excommunication. Now Mormon politicians are embarking on a "marriage sovereignty" bill which would prevent gay couples from adopting within the state, clearly not abiding by any "compromise."

In Indiana, lawmakers last month already tried to emulate the Utah "compromise" -- a supposed LGBT bill rights bill with broad, offensive religious exemptions -- and when LGBT advocates rightly stood their ground and refused, the bill was killed altogether. That was less than a year after everyone was hailing the Indiana "turning point," when big business supposedly was going to save the day after Governor Mike Pence was forced to backtrack on a Religious Restoration Freedom Act, and bring full equality to the state.

It's as if none of that had actually happened last year -- except, it did, but it was momentary and meant very little, because both the media and big business are fair weather friends. And more importantly, LGBT leaders were overcome with victory blindness, heady over the marriage equality win that was believed to be coming down. But perhaps they're still overcome because they still don't have a strategy, though after Houston, Chad Griffin, president of the largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign -- which went to Houston to spearhead the battle which they lost badly -- promised they'd have one. In subsequent interviews, however, he still hasn't adequately articulated it.

What has the group done lately about the backlash? They've sent out a lot of press releases and written a lot of blog posts, from what I can see. Has Griffin gone to South Dakota to try to talk with the governor, legislators or even hold a press conference? Did he head to Mississippi to consult with activists and bring attention to the issue? Maybe he could have led a contingent of activists to Kansas, where anti-gay Governor Sam Brownback in recent days hailed the largest anti-gay religious freedom rally that Brownback said he could ever recall at the statehouse.

No, last we saw Griffin he was in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, then on the campaign trail in Iowa with Hillary Clinton (and the group had organized its members to campaign in Nevada), whom his group endorsed even before there were any primaries. Yes, while all of this is happening in the states the leader of the country's largest LGBT group is on the campaign trail for a politician rather than heading to those states.

At the very least, the Human Rights Campaign should be pressuring the Democratic candidates for president -- both of them -- to speak out fervently and specifically about these bills in Utah, Georgia, Mississippi and many other states. And the candidates, in debates and elsewhere, should be talking about how transgender kids, children who are trying to make their way in a hostile world, are under fervent attack in South Dakota. Instead, Hillary Clinton has spoken in general terms about "LGBT rights" (to her credit, however, it's been at just every debate and during other speeches), while Sanders mentioned "gay rights" in his New Hampshire victory speech while he's not gotten into the specifics of the all-out assault on LGBT rights in the states.

Because the Human Rights Campaign mistakenly endorsed a candidate (Clinton) early -- the group has in the past few elections waited until after the primaries to endorse -- many believe there's no leverage, no incentive for the candidates to speak out. There's no endorsement to compete for.

But that of course shouldn't stop the candidates from being more vocal and more specific. From the minimal data available, Sanders may be getting a large chunk of the LGBT vote, over 40 percent of a constituency that has influence larger than its numbers because of its loyalty, its donors and how those in the grass roots inspire others to get out to vote. He could pull in more from a group many had taken for granted would turn out big for Clinton. And of course, Sanders should speak on these issues in specifics not just to get voters out, but to stand against bigotry.

But with gay leaders kind of clueless about what to do, or still heady after the Supreme Court win, they've not organized the community. Many LGBT Americans aren't even aware of what's playing out. And the national media, too, appears to have blocked it out almost entirely, as these stories play under the radar. It's not surprising then that national politicians aren't talking about these alarming bills. They're not getting any direction from a community that seems itself not to even notice how anti-LGBT bigots continue their crusade against equality right before our eyes.

Meanwhile, as Democrats continue to become more deeply and angrily divided over their candidates, a new poll shows Republicans ready and willing -- 86 percent -- to vote for Donald Trump if he wins the nomination. With GOP Senate leaders hellbent on preventing President Obama from replacing Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court, it's quite possible the next president will do that. If it's Donald Trump, he's indicated he'd appoint the most extreme judges, putting up names of some with horribly anti-gay records.

And it goes without saying that if anyone in the rest of the field of GOP candidates wins, the judges won't be any better. We may then see one or two other Supreme Court justices step down or die, with a GOP president replacing them, too, with anti-gay judges who will certainly uphold these religious liberty bills and possibly could ensconce anti-LGBT laws for decades. That is the nightmare scenario. But unless people wake up, it could begin to become a reality in just a matter of months.

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