Every time I get a notification about an act of terrorism in the United States, there’s a jolt of anxiety in my chest. I still vividly remember the Orlando shooting in 2016, when 49 people were killed by a single gunman at Pulse (a gay night club). This month marked the seventh anniversary of the incident taking place, but the events remain clear in my mind. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since the Twin Towers fell in 2001.
The reason this strikes more fear into me than the average British person, (although most of the LGBTQ+ community are affected), is because my partner lives in the US. Not just in the US but in Kentucky, which is largely a Republican state and part of the Bible Belt, where socially conservative Christian values dominate society. Their safety is never guaranteed.
Dangers of being queer in the US
The rise of LGBTQ+ hatred in the US is incredibly frightening: not only are queer spaces, like Pulse, being targeted, but it’s dangerous to exist as a queer person in public places too. Even visiting the supermarkets can be risky. The numbers of homophobic and transphobic people are growing and, worse, they are becoming more vocal and more violent.
It hasn’t been proven that the Orlando shootings were a deliberate hate crime committed against the LGBTQ+ community, but many incidents are. Statistics show queer people are twice as likely to be victims of gun crime than their peers, in addition to sexual orientation or gender identity being a motivator in 20% of all hate crimes. Last November, a shooting at a LGBTQ+ bar in Colorado Springs killed five people and injured a further 25. Orlando was far from an isolated incident.
Many have also referred to the Orlando night club shooting as the deadliest incident in the history of violence against LGBTQ+ people in the US — but that neglects the recent series of attacks which have been launched by the government against their own citizens. While mass shootings are terrifying and continue to shock the world, the growth of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in politics should be treated with the same outrage.
A recent survey conducted by Indeed found 65% of LGBTQ+ professionals are concerned about how anti-LGBTQ legislation is going to affect their employment opportunities.
It’s unsurprising, as the rise of homophobia and transphobia in the US isn’t only manifesting in increased physical violence. There’s also more political violence: last year, a historic 315 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced over the course of the year. As of May 2023, there has already been a further 490 anti-LGBTQ bills set in motion, severely restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Although the US government isn’t armed with guns, they are launching attacks openly and repeatedly on the queer population. Policy can kill too.
The same report found the majority of queer people experience workplace discrimination, they are reluctant to work in states with anti-LGBTQ legislation, and a sizeable number hide their identity at work. Despite the movement towards acceptance over the last few decades, institutional discrimination is still in place and affects the employment opportunities of LGBTQ+ people.
My partner works in Kentucky, where the rights for transgender people are steadily being eroded. Gender affirming healthcare, legal document changes, and protection for doctors who support these practices have recently been outlawed under House Bill 470 — but only regarding minors. However, this bill sets an unsettling precedent for transgender people in general. Although 71% of Kentuckians opposed House Bill 470, it was successfully passed in March 2023.
Thankfully, the right to discriminate against an individual due to sexual orientation or gender identity is still illegal in Kentucky, under an executive order passed in June 2008. While this doesn’t prevent discrimination from happening, I’m grateful my partner is protected by the law.
Federal vs state law
State-wide protection for LGBTQ+ workers has been in place since 2020, when the Supreme Court ruled that firing someone on the basis of being queer was discrimination. However, due to the structure of the US, the amount of protection LGBTQ+ people receive in employment can differ drastically between states.
Both Missouri and Alaska only protect public employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but not gender identity. In the south, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee have the reverse, only prohibiting gender identity discrimination within public employment.
A total of 13 states have no state-level prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. There is nothing to protect queer people subjected to microaggressions, verbal harassment, hostility, sexual harassment, and physical violence.
When it comes to US laws, a federal anti-discrimination law being put in place doesn’t necessarily mean you are protected. It can depend on your state, country, or city. People who live in highly conservative areas (like the Bible Belt) are usually the most impacted by anti-LGBTQ laws.
It’s also important to remember, as with Roe v. Wade, laws can be overturned despite the majority of the public disagreeing with the decision. As anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric grows more commonplace, the implications it could have regarding the law becomes more dangerous.
It used to be the case, when I saw headlines about homophobic or transphobic laws being passed, I would be outraged more than anything else. The US seemed so distant (a place on TV), I couldn’t imagine the people it was impacting. It certainly didn’t compare to the emotions stirred up by a shooting and the lives they claim in an instant.
Now, when I get a notification about a new bill being passed, I feel the same sense of fear I usually experience when a mass shooting takes place. I’m frightened. Primarily for my partner, yes, but for everyone else it will affect in the US. Because if LGBTQ+ people are intentionally being targeted with violence, what difference does it make if it’s with a gun or a pen?
Published Online: 22/06/2023