If a State of the Union Address holds any real purpose, it is for the president to amplify his past accomplishments while giving a preview of what’s to come. Although President Joe Biden largely accomplished that goal on Tuesday, some topics were, of course, given more time than others. Biden rightly used his speech to alleviate concerns about inflation and corner Republicans on Medicare. But, unfortunately, as the right’s crusade against queer people intensifies, LGBTQ rights were scarcely mentioned.
Though the address lasted more than one hour, the totality of Biden’s comments on the subject could be found in two lines: asking Congress to pass the Equality Act, to ensure that “LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity,” and referencing the recently passed Respect for Marriage Act. “While the legislation was intended as a buttress against right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, activists have criticized the Respect for Marriage Act for writing Republican religious liberty exemptions into law and focusing on an issue that impacts only a small and wealthy portion of the LGBTQ+ community,” wrote Theia Chatelle in The Nation last month.
The LGBTQ community is being attacked more than any time in recent memory. Republican-controlled state legislatures have introduced laws criminalizing and restricting drag shows and banning gender-affirming care for trans youth. Queer teachers are falsely labeled “groomers” or fired. Molotov cocktails have been thrown through the windows of bakeries that host drag shows, and the Proud Boys disrupt drag queen story hours with guns at their side. The right’s institutionalized dehumanization of LGBTQ people led to the killing of five people at Club Q in Colorado Springs. The language used by conservative pundits, politicians, and media personalities to describe the LGBTQ community is patently eliminationist. One can only assume that the violence perpetuated against LGBTQ people is their expected—and preferred—outcome.
One might hope that elected officials would respond with more than rhetoric and half-hearted legislation. Unfortunately, President Biden didn’t mention Club Q, or how the resurgence of homophobic and transphobic tropes has created a new generation of anti-gay extremists. He happily challenged Republicans on the debt ceiling, and used the murder of Tyre Nichols as a rallying call for police reform. But Biden’s support within the Black community is currently shaky, and the country’s economic strength has been called into question by Republicans since his term began. Presumably, Biden didn’t feel such exertions were necessary for the nation’s queer population. There is little risk of losing queer voters to Republicans. According to GLAAD, 81 percent of LGBTQ voters supported Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
This complacency toward LGBTQ voters isn’t unique to Biden but shared by the entire Democratic Party. The assumption that LGBTQ people are an unwavering portion of the base actually allows the party to support them less. An analysis from MIC showed a pervasive reluctance among Democratic leadership to specifically attack anti-trans policies, preferring broad generalizations about “anti-LGBTQ” laws. In an interview with the Financial Times last year, Hillary Clinton disparaged the party for focusing on “activist causes,” commenting that trans rights are “relevant only to a small minority.” By not aggressively fighting for LGBTQ rights for fear of alienating conservative voters, the Democrats weaken their messaging, sow distrust within the LGBTQ community, and maintain homophobia and transphobia within the party itself. Reporting by The Intercept in 2020 showed that the University of Massachusetts–Ahmherst College Democrats engineered false sexual abuse allegations against Alex Morse, an openly gay man, who was running against incumbent Representative Richard Neal.
Over the last few years, the LGBTQ community’s saviors haven’t been political leaders but the community itself. Through community defense groups and mutual aid networks, queer organizers have built an alternative support structure. A community defense force protected a “transgender story time” event in Denton, Tex., during Trans Week of Awareness. The Club Q shooter would have hurt or killed more people had he not been disarmed and subdued by the club’s patrons. Without trustworthy institutions, queer people have been forced to take the safety of themselves and their loved ones into their own hands.
LGBTQ rights aren’t a “culture war” issue to be debated abstractly. Of course, the Biden administration is undoubtedly better than its predecessor, but Trump shouldn’t set the standard for Democrats, and the party’s unwillingness to campaign forcefully on these issues will eventually undermine LGBTQ voters’ trust. If Democrats truly care about queer people’s safety, continuing to take their support for granted would be a dangerous mistake.