2016 Has Been A Mixed Bag For LGBT Politics

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Crowds of people take photos of the White House lighted in the rainbow colors in Washington on June 26, 2015.

At just about every Hillary Clinton campaign event this year, and much of last, you could find lots of rainbows and posters with the letters "LGBT" on them in the crowd. The average Hillary Clinton event has a healthy amount of gay, lesbian and transgender Clinton supporters in attendance.

This past Thursday at a rally co-headlined by Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama, Charlotte resident Matt Hirschy wore a rainbow-print "H" sticker and a wedding ring. Before the rally, he was still celebrating the achievements of last year, namely the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country.

"If you would have asked me growing up that my parents would accept me for being gay or that I'd be able to get married, I'd probably laugh," Hirschy says. "Well, I probably wouldn't do anything, I'd run away scared because I wasn't out yet, but I'd probably be very skeptical of it."

Hirschy, a Hillary Clinton supporter, says that in spite of the massive gains his community won last year, he still feels under threat. "I've been kicked out of establishments because I'm gay before, for holding hands with my partner," he says. "I've been denied the opportunity to lease a certain home or apartment because of the fact that I'm LGBT."

He also pointed to HB2, a North Carolina law which which prevents transgender people from using bathrooms corresponding to the gender they identify with.

Hirschy's state of mind — celebration mixed with trepidation — sums up a reality for many gay, lesbian and transgender people this year. In the aftermath of Obergefell, the fight for LGBT rights didn't end; it only changed.

"The issues that affect the LGBT community are less national issues in this election than they are state-specific issues," says Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "In about 30 states, LGBT people can be legally married, but still be at risk of being fired from their job, denied a loan, evicted from an apartment, or thrown out of a restaurant. And that is not a theoretical problem."

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told NPR that in the past year, his group has tracked 204 bills in 34 states deemed "anti-LGBTQ."

And while HB2 in North Carolina has drawn national attention, some gay rights advocates fear the Supreme Court's marriage ruling last year allowed many people to assume all the work was done.

"This is always a challenge when a group's issue gets defined really narrowly," says Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). "This is the trade-off to having a condensed but also focused campaign that becomes winnable. And the challenge then [is] of broadening that analysis so that folks don't think we're done now that we've just won marriage."

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, noted how that trade-off has resulted in a drop in financial support for LGBT causes. "Some of the LGBT infrastructure, particularly equality organizations that had marriage as their main issue, closed shop," he says. "At some organizations that have played a big role in the marriage equality victories, up to one-third or at least one-quarter of the funding was at risk."

On the national stage this campaign season, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have voiced support for the LGBT community. Several gay rights groups say Clinton has the most progressive, thorough platform on LGBT issues ever. (Clinton's LGBT "fact sheet" on her website is over 2,700 words.) She's won the endorsement of most LGBT rights groups as well.

Trump made history during his speech at the Republican National Convention, becoming the first GOP nominee to pledge support to the LGBT community in a nomination speech. He pledged to protect LGBT people from terrorism after a shooting that killed dozens of people at a gay club in Orlando.

Yet his words came just after his party passed a platform that activists called extremely regressive on gay rights issues, with language that defined marriage as "the union of one man and one woman" and language that activists interpreted to support conversion therapy for gay youth.

For that reason, even the Log Cabin Republicans refused to endorse Trump. Gregory T. Angelo, president of the group, says: "Would he be governing as a President Trump who stood idly by as the GOP passed what I term the most anti-LGBT platform in the party's 162-year history? Or would he govern as the candidate we saw the following week, at the convention, presiding over the most pro-LGBT convention in the GOP's 162-year history? We really don't know."

(The Trump campaign did not respond to NPR's interview request for this story.)

The Human Rights Campaign's Chad Griffin says regardless of Trump's gesture toward gays and lesbians at the convention, other things he's said and done throughout the campaign show him not to be an ally.

"Perhaps what Donald Trump doesn't actually understand is the LGBT community is as diverse as the fabric of this nation," Griffin says. "We are black. We are Asian. We are Muslim. We are immigrants. We are people with disabilities. So, when he attacks any one of us, he's attacking our entire community."

Hillary Clinton has maintained about the same level of LGBT support Barack Obama did in 2012. A September NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll found 72 percent of registered LGBT voters supporting Clinton, with only 20 percent supporting Trump. Exit polling showed Obama captured about 77 percent of the LGBT vote in 2012.

Despite those numbers, Clinton has still faced criticism over her record on LGBT issues, namely being slow to evolve on gay marriage, having not come out in support of marriage equality until 2013.

Miriam Yeung says this should not be held against her. "We obviously wish more of our allies came to our side sooner," Yeung says of Clinton, drawing parallels to family members and loved ones of LGBT individuals who were late to accept them after they came out. "I don't think it serves us to continue to hold it against them. Now that they're on our side, be 100 percent with us."

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal urges Americans to keep working on LGBT issues regardless of who wins the election. And he thinks the challenge will be in finding support and resources for issues little discussed on the campaign trail and not as simple as marriage equality. He cites HIV/AIDS and protections for transgender people, particularly transgender people of color.

"We don't talk about the needs of these communities that are at the intersection of oppression, because it's not as sexy," Espinoza-Madrigal says. "It doesn't have a white picket fence attached to it. It doesn't have a wedding ring attached to it."

But Yeung is hopeful that one aftereffect of the marriage fight can help keep those types of issues at the forefront: She says the activist infrastructure the push for marriage created has started to adopt other issues and inspire LGBT activism elsewhere.

"[The marriage fight] trained up this very elite crew of folks who know how to run on-the-ground campaigns, who are now deployed in other issue areas," Yeung says. "So we see queers of color running the immigrants' rights movement. We see queers of color and low-income folks running economic justice and 'Fight for 15' minimum-wage campaigns. Even the Black Lives Matter movement — two out of three women [founders] are queer-identified."

And, Yeung says, for activists like her all those issues are connected.

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