After four truly exhausting years of wondering what fresh hell my phone notifications would wake me with each day, it’s an understatement to say that it’s a pleasant change to see President Biden swiftly working his way through the list of promises he made to LGBTQ+ communities during his campaign and diligently undoing the damage inflicted by the Trump administration.
I initially set out to write this article about cabinet picks and administration appointments, perhaps some executive orders, and a look ahead to what we might be able to expect in the coming months from the Biden-Harris administration, but it quickly became clear to me that the executive orders deserved the spotlight.
We know that it will take a very long time to truly recover and heal from the damage done by the Trump administration, but it’s a relief to witness this thoughtful and comprehensive approach to addressing these incredible challenges, within hours of being sworn in.
The first president in U.S. history to take executive action explicitly addressing LGBTQ+ rights on day one, Biden issued an order prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, extending federal protections to 13 million LGBTQ youth and adults. This order implements the landmark June 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the consolidated cases of Bostock v. Clayton County, Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, which affirmed that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is a form of prohibited sex discrimination.
Sharita Gruberg of Center for American Progress said this order “represents one of the greatest expansions of LGBTQ civil rights in our history and will have concrete impacts on the everyday lives of millions of LGBTQ Americans and their families.” This is especially true in states like Wisconsin that lack comprehensive protections for the entire LGBTQ+ community. In 1982 we became the first state in the country to adopt a statewide nondiscrimination law on the basis of sexual orientation, but it was a different time, and gender identity and expression were not included as a protected class. Fixing this grave mistake has been a top priority for Fair Wisconsin and countless others in this state, and this federal executive action gets us one big step closer to the full legal protections our communities need.
Another day-one order, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” demonstrates the administration’s commitment to eliminating systemic barriers to equal opportunity—and shows a remarkable understanding of the depth and breadth of intersecting forms of systemic oppression, and the need for a holistic approach to tackling this problem.
The directive recognizes that “entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.” It continues, “Our country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism. Our Nation deserves an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.
“It is therefore the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.”
A notable day-two order, one of several addressing the coronavirus pandemic, focuses on health equity, stating that, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated severe and pervasive health and social inequities in America.” It continues, “Addressing this devastating toll is both a moral imperative and pragmatic policy” and directs a “government-wide effort to address health equity.”
This order creates a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force within the Department of Health and Human Services to provide recommendations for mitigating the health inequities exposed by the pandemic; equitable allocation and distribution of resources to fight the pandemic; effective, culturally aligned communication, messaging, and outreach to relevant populations; and for expediting and improving data collection to better achieve these goals.
In President Biden’s second week in office, the ban on transgender service members was once again lifted. This executive order directs the Department of Defense to reinstate the policies that allowed transgender people to serve openly, put in place by President Obama in 2016 and repealed by Trump in 2017.
In addition to open service, this directive requires that implementation “shall include establishing a process by which transgender service members may transition gender while serving,” ensuring critical health care for service members. The directive also prohibits “involuntary separations, discharges, and denials of reenlistment or continuation of service on the basis of gender identity or under circumstances relating to their gender identity,” and requires the examination of records of service members who have been involuntarily separated, discharged, or denied reenlistment on the basis of gender identity.
This presidential memorandum reaffirms a 2011 memorandum issued by President Obama that directed executive departments and agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons everywhere.
“All human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear no matter who they are or whom they love. Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection under the law, freedom from violence, and recognition of their fundamental human rights. The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle—speaking out and standing strong for our most dearly held values. It shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, and to lead by the power of our example in the cause of advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.”
Other executive actions taken within the first two weeks provide more recognition and protection for LGBTQ people in immigration, access to healthcare, and economic security. These actions focus on strengthening public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, and optimizing testing and vaccine distribution, extending the existing nationwide eviction and foreclosure moratorium until at least March 31, and extending the existing pause on student loan payments and interest for federal student loans until at least September 30. Another order creates a new open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act from February 15 to May 15.
According to the Williams Institute, “Biden’s day one initiatives impact almost 300,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants in the United States. …The plan provides an eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal status, an expansion of refugee admissions, and a focus on addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. In addition, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the temporary protected status (TPS) program would be able to apply for a green card immediately. Further, undocumented immigrants will once again be counted in the U.S. Census.” According to Williams Institute analysis, there are approximately 289,700 undocumented LGBT adult immigrants in the U.S. An estimated 76% are Latinx. There are 81,000 LGBT Dreamers in the U.S., and 39,000 of them have participated in DACA.
Megin McDonell has over two decades of management experience working in nonprofits, including grant writing, media and communications, program development and implementation, and financial management. Before joining Fair Wisconsin in 2011, she was the Program Director at the Tenant Resource Center in Madison for fourteen years. She has been active in local politics and elections, including serving for eleven years on the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission and working on numerous aldermanic, county board, assembly and congressional campaigns. Megin also previously served as President of the Social Justice Center Board of Directors and Chair of the NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin Board of Directors. She lives in Madison with her husband and two teenaged children.