It’s been a watershed year for queer rights, both in the East Bay, and in the United States at large, and not simply because Ellen Page finally came out. In 1990, same-sex marriage was illegal literally everywhere in the world, and now 35 states in the US allow same sex couples to marry (and it’s only a matter of time before the rest follow suit). Obama’s Affordable Care Act expanded health benefits for many queer and trans people, because it forbid health insurance marketplaces from discriminating based on gender identity and pre-existing conditions such as gender dysphoria. And The New York Times finally recognized the existence of bisexuality in men! Follow us on a journey back through 2014’s many LGBT highlights (and a few lowlights).
“Gay Panic” Defense Dies
In September, California became the first state to outlaw the “gay panic” and “trans panic” line of defense in criminal cases when Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 2051 into law. The gay panic defense has often been used to justify violence toward LGBT people and garner reduced sentences for those who perpetrate that violence. According to the “reasoning” behind it, a person’s overwhelming hatred for LGBT people causes them to “panic” and commit terrible acts against them. It’s an appalling, victim-blaming tactic, and one that, sadly, has been invoked numerous times over the years. It was invoked (unsuccessfully) in the case of Gwen Araujo, an eighteen-year-old trans woman from Newark who was beaten to death by four men in 2002 (and whose death prompted the creation of the International Transgender Day of Remembrance). Gay panic was also used (successfully) in the case of openly gay fifteen-year-old Larry King, who was shot twice in 2008 in the back of the head by a classmate, Brandon McInerney. McInerney eventually pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Respect After Death
Governor Brown also signed into law the “Respect After Death” act, which ensures that trans people can have their gender identity reflected in their death certificates. “We are grateful to the Governor, California’s Legislature, and the leadership of Assembly Speaker Atkins for enacting this common-sense bill that will help protect the dignity of our loved ones upon their passing,” said Masen Davis, executive director of Transgender Law Center, in a statement about the act’s passage. “This brings us a significant step closer to making sure that all transgender people are able to live — and die — authentically in accordance with who they really are.”
Social Media Strides
In February, Facebook gave its users more than fifty custom gender options, appeasing those who don’t identify as simply “male” or “female.” The social network also rolled out options including pronoun choices for “her,” “him,” or “them.” And Facebook allowed users to apply custom privacy settings to their stated gender information, so that users don’t have to share their preferences with, say, their boss, far-flung acquaintances, or that random one-night stand from OkCupid. “There’s going to be a lot of people for whom this is going to mean nothing, but for the few it does impact, it means the world,” said Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison in a statement about the changes. Harrison worked on the project and identifies as trans herself.
But Facebook later got itself in hot water with the queer community by trying to force its users to use their legal names on the site. Bay Area drag queens and other members of the LGBTQ community were vocal opponents of the policy, claiming it disproportionately affected members of the queer community. The backlash against Facebook prompted many users to switch to a new social media site, Ello (though the number of Ello users pales in comparison to Facebook’s 1.2 billion). Facebook eventually backed down and reversed its policy, proving yet again that you shouldn’t mess with drag queens.
“We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we’re going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were,” wrote Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox.
On the dating side of social networking, for years LGBT users have complained about the limited gender options on OkCupid, and the popular dating site finally did something about it. In November, the site quietly rolled out an expansion of gender and sexual orientation options for select users, who were notified via email (we’re still waiting for our invite, OkC). Gender options include agender, androgynous, cis man, cis woman, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, intersex, trans man, trans woman, and two spirit, among others. And sexuality options users can choose from now include asexual, demisexual, heteroflexible, homoflexible, pansexual, queer, questioning, and sapiosexual.
You Can Still Get Fired in Many States for Being Queer
Twenty-nine states don’t have workplace protections for gender identity or sexual orientation — a legal gap that affects an estimated four million LGBT workers. The Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) tried to, well, enda that practice and would have outlawed private discrimination against LGBT employees at most workplaces. It passed the Senate last year, but Speaker John Boehner ensured that it wouldn’t come up for a vote in the house, and it’s now been set adrift in a Republican-controlled Congress, which doesn’t bode well for it. But! The Department of Labor did establish a rule for federal contractors that will prohibit them from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Laverne Cox Conquers the World
2014 has also been the year of Laverne Cox (Long may she reign!). Cox became the first out transgender person nominated for an Emmy award in acting this year for her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. She was also the first trans woman to make the cover of TIME magazine. Plus, Glamour named her Woman of the Year, and she remains an outspoken activist for LGBT rights in virtually all she does.
Notable Celebrities Who Came Out
College football star Michael Sam made sports history when he became the first out football player to be drafted by an NFL team, the St. Louis Rams. And, in a moving speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s “Time to Thrive” conference, actor Ellen Page also came out as gay. So did former Miss Kentucky Djuan Trent, singer Sam Smith, WWE Champion Pat Patterson, and Kristian Nairn, aka Hodor on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Somebody get these people their toaster ovens, pronto.
The Loss of Many Bay Area Queer Bars
The news that more and more people are coming out is somewhat tempered by the loss of many queer spaces in the last decade. In October, Lila Thirkield, owner of the last lesbian bar in San Francisco, announced it was closing after eighteen years because of high rents and gentrification. The death of The Lexington Club marks the third LGBT bar closure of late in San Francisco — the others were Esta Noche in the Mission and Marlena’s in Hayes Valley. “My faith in queer San Francisco still runs deep. It is the best place in the world and dykes and queers are still an integral part of this city. They always will be,” Thirkield said in a statement on Facebook. Some good news, however. On New Year’s Eve, drag queen extraordinaire Heklina is opening a new nightclub in SOMA called The Oasis.
The New York Times Recognizes the Existence of Bisexuals
The Times has a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to reporting on bisexuals (see “Straight, Gay or Lying?”), but in March, The Times magazine published a lengthy, in-depth piece on bisexuality by Benoit Denizet-Lewis titled, “The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists,” which was informative, well-researched, and worth reading, and has prompted many discussions about bi invisibility and erasure. Now that bisexuality has been “proven” once again, we hope researchers can start to answer more pressing questions, such as why bisexuals report much higher suicide and depression rates than heterosexuals, why so many bisexuals are on food stamps, and why they have more frequent mental health issues than their straight or gay counterparts.
Other Brief Notables
Bay Area comedians started a weekly queer comedy night called Funny Fun at Club 21, which is still going strong. Queen Latifah officiated a massive “Same Love” wedding ceremony onstage at the Grammys. Homobiles, the Bay Area ride-sharing service that serves the queer community and its allies, achieved 501(c)3 nonprofit status. A big loss for the queer community involved the death of Leslie Feinberg, gender warrior and author of Stone Butch Blues. The lesbian-owned Laurel bookstore moved to downtown Oakland with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. The Express participated in #LezBiBuy, a day created by AfterEllen.com in order to support queer businesses across the nation. And in April, the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project launched. BALHAP’s goal is to gather and preserve the Bay Area lesbian history, culture, community, and activism from the 1940s to today. “Despite innumerable contributions in oppressed communities locally and globally, Bay Area lesbians remain largely invisible in both mainstream and LGBT histories,” notes the group’s Facebook page. To learn more or donate, visit LabrysHealthcareCircle.com/Ace/BALHAP.