PHILADELPHIA—Despite being proud of advances they’ve made during eight years under President Barack Obama, leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement say they still have work to do.

“The future of the LGBT movement hinges largely on the outcome of this election,” Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation, said at a global LGBT summit held in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Jennings, issuing a warning to a mostly friendly audience, said there are “two very different visions for LGBT equality in the Republican and Democratic platforms.”

More than 25 prominent leaders of the national LGBT movement, including elected officials and other influential voices, gathered for the four-day event called the Equality Forum.

The Daily Signal attended several panel discussions featuring speakers such as Janson Wu, executive director of the advocacy group GLAD; James Esseks, director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and AIDS project at the American Civil Liberties Union; and Evan Wolfson, former president of Freedom to Marry, a campaign largely credited with winning the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Looking forward, speakers said, priorities include defeating “anti-LGBT” bills, supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth through new school policies and curriculum and partnering with outside organizations on minority-driven issues such as gun control and criminal justice reform. They called for Congress to amend the Civil Rights Act to add protections in places of public accommodation, among other changes.

LGBT advocacy groups also are involved in an array of lawsuits they believe could have a major impact, including a Pennsylvania case where a transgender women alleges discrimination by her former employer.

The Equality Forum didn’t conclude without controversy.  As panelists talked about outreach to millennials, blacks, and other minorities, one reporter stood up and asked why, if they care so much about diversity, was their panel comprised of four middle-aged white men?

LGBT activists protest guns in New York City on the first night of the Republican National Convention. (Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Newscom)

LGBT activists protest guns in New York City on the first night of the Republican National Convention. (Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Newscom)

Speakers acknowledged the problem, and admitted a double standard.

“If we’re going to talk about millennials and people of color, it’s important to talk with them and not to them,” the Arcus Foundation’s Jennings said.

The two dozen or so moderators and panelists included women, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans, but most appeared to be white, middle-aged men.

The ultimate goal, leaders said throughout the week, is to make life easier for the next generation of LGBT youth by passing laws and implementing policies they argue would make the world a more tolerant place.

Wu, executive director at GLAD, said:

We have got to do so much more around ensuring that LGBT children and young people are fully included, integrated, and celebrated in every aspect of life—in their families, and schools, and communities, and faith communities. If we really do that, then we can break the cycle of harm that has caused so many of us to have a lot of trauma and problems as adults.

Here’s a breakdown of four of the LGBT movement’s specific strategies, as described at the Equality Forum.

1. Passing the Equality Act

Passing this federal legislation is perhaps the most important short-term goal. Wolfson, the former president of Freedom to Marry, called it “unfinished business.”

The Equality Act, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity among prohibited categories of discrimination.

According to one of the most influential LGBT advocacy groups, the Human Rights Campaign, the legislation would apply to areas of “employment, housing, access to public places, federal funding, credit, education, and jury service.”

Conservatives worry the measure undermines First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty.

They say it would limit the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, forcing private business owners to violate their religious beliefs about marriage and mandating that people be allowed into restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, and similar facilities based on their gender identity.

“The ‘Equality Act’ is a misnomer,” wrote Ryan T. Anderson, an expert on marriage and religious liberty at The Heritage Foundation, which is the parent organization of The Daily Signal. “The bill does not protect equality before the law, but unnecessarily and unjustly violates freedom by creating special privileges based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

>>> Read More: How the So-Called ‘Equality Act’ Threatens Religious Liberty

According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 80 corporations have signed on in support of the measure, including Target, Facebook, American Airlines, and Apple. (See chart below.)

Esseks, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that support was largely a result of the relationships the LGBT movement built with private businesses while working to legalize same-sex marriage.

Conservative groups such as 2nd Vote, which urges Americans to vote with their wallets and boycott companies that financially back measures such as the Equality Act, criticize the role of large corporations.

Robert Kuykendall, spokesman for 2nd Vote, said:

Big business is helping carry the water for the policy goals of Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT advocacy organizations that are leading a dangerous assault on religious liberty on multiple fronts. The alliance between the Human Rights Campaign and its corporate sponsors like Target and Bank of America is a principle driver of the LGBT political movement.

LGBT leaders appeared confident such corporations would continue working with them as allies and that, with  a Democrat majority in Congress, they could pass the Equality Act with a few Republicans on board.

Guests speak on the "Future of the Movement" panel on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pa. Sitting from left to right: Evan Wolfson, former president of Freedom to Marry, Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation, Jay Brown, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, and moderator Kevin Naff, editor and co-owner of the Washington Blade. (Photo: The Daily Signal)

On the “Future of the Movement” panel July 28, 2016, in Philadelphia are, from left, Evan Wolfson, former president of Freedom to Marry; Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation; Jay Brown, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign; and moderator Kevin Naff, editor and co-owner of the Washington Blade. (Photo: Kelsey Harkness/The Daily Signal)

2. Defeating State and Local Laws

The biggest threat LGBT leaders said they’re facing is what they call “anti-LGBT” legislation proposed by conservatives in state and local governments.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage, many people of faith concluded they needed laws to protect their conscience rights so that they can run businesses, adoption agencies, and charity organizations in accord with their deeply held religious beliefs.

Specifically, these state laws aim to protect religious freedom by ensuring that state government can’t discriminate against private schools, charities, businesses, or individuals for their beliefs. Examples include believing that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage, and that gender identity is based on biological sex.

Wolfson, who spent decades advocating same-sex marriage, didn’t pay much mind to those concerns.

“Religion is not the reason people are bigots,” he said. “It’s the excuse.”

With more than 200 such measures popping up last year, Equality Forum panelists said they were dealt a major challenge from opponents who they believe are trying to use religion as a reason to discriminate.

We knew there was going to be a backlash, but the backlash was bigger than I thought it was going to be,” the ACLU’s Esseks said, speaking of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision. “That’s an enormous onslaught of organized legislative activity coming at us.”

To defeat their opponents, LGBT groups plan to go state by state to strike down religious freedom measures and, instead, implement their own laws on sexual orientation and gender identity.  They said they intend to do this until new federal law or court decisions negate that necessity.

“The national conversation around this is night and day different from where it was last fall,” Esseks said, expressing confidence the tide is shifting in their favor. “We finally got over being awkward and shy about talking about restrooms.”

3. Going to Court

Panelists said they have their eyes on an array of court cases that they believe could greatly affect the future of the LGBT movement’s agenda, including the Pennsylvania case in which a transgender woman is suing the outdoor recreation company Cabela’s, a former employer.

The employee, Kate Lynn Blatt, took the legal action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, arguing Cabela’s did not provide reasonable accommodations for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Blatt’s supervisor “called her a ‘he-she,’ a ‘lady-boy,’” and insisted Blatt, hired as a seasonal stocker, wear a name tag with the name James rather than Kate Lynn, Wu said.

“And then when it came to the question of which bathroom she should use, [the supervisor] wouldn’t allow her to use the women’s restroom in the store, and instead, suggested that maybe she should go to the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street,” Wu said.

“This is clear discrimination based on your transgender status,” he said.

GLAD is assisting in the case, Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail Inc. The case is important, Wu explained, because of a “first of its kind litigation strategy” with the potential of overturning exclusions for transgender individuals under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“If we’re able to remove or overturn this exclusion, then we’ve just opened up really important protections for transgender people in public accommodations,” he said.

While LGBT leaders are eyeing other legal cases—many of them involving transgender Americans—some experts said they aren’t overly concerned with cases in which private business owners, citing religious beliefs, decline to provide wedding-related services. These include bakers, photographers, and florists.

“We’re doing very well in those cases,” Esseks said. “We’ve won almost all of them.”

And if one were to land before the Supreme Court? Esseks said:

Justice [Anthony] Kennedy says people are free to believe whatever they want to believe [and] that gives me significant hope the court will say that’s not what religious freedom looks like, what you’re asking for is a license to discriminate, and that’s not something we’ll constitutionalize.

4. Partnering With Black Lives Matter and Others

The LGBT leaders also said they are beginning to discuss how they can be more supportive of other minority rights groups, specifically Black Lives Matter.

Drawing a parallel to Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton’s declaration in 2011 that “gay rights are human rights,” Jennings, the executive director of the Arcus Foundation, said that “the rights of black people are gay rights, and the rights of gay people are black rights.”

“If we remain silent then we lose, in my mind, the ability to complain when we are the victims of similar treatment,” he said. “We would lose all credibility.”

But Wolfson said he hopes LGBT organizations take more of a back-seat approach, allowing groups such as Black Lives Matter to remain in the driver’s seat.

“[We] don’t plan to lead the entire effort on curbing gun violence, but to bring meaningful contribution and meaningful voice to action,” he said.

Leaders also expressed interest in supporting criminal justice reform, the feminist movement, access to abortion, and gun control.

Gun control should be of great concern to the transgender community, said Jay Brown, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign.

“It’s all too often that there’s another [transgender] murder and it’s all too often that it goes unnoticed.”

By helping other movements, Brown said, the LGBT community will help itself.

“When you broaden access for one group, you broaden access for everyone.”

‘Make Your Dream Happen’

Overall, the tone of the Equality Forum was optimistic. Small efforts, such as introducing transgender individuals to those who never met one before, are making a huge difference, leaders remarked.

But “being out and being visible,” said Brown, who is openly transgender himself, “comes with great risk.”

So these efforts are slow, he said, and are a work in progress.

The overall message to youth who struggle to accept their identity: Dream big.

“Believe in your dream and make your dream happen,” Jennings said.

Shannon Minter, litigation director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told an audience of about 30 not to stop at tolerance and acceptance.

“We have got to do so much more around ensuring that LGBT children and young people are fully included, integrated, and celebrated in every aspect of life—in their families and schools and communities and faith communities,” Minter said. “If we really do that, then we can break the cycle of harm that has caused so many of us to have a lot of trauma and problems as adults.”

GLAD’s Wu said:

Let’s dream bigger for a second and let’s think about students—all students, not just LGBT students—learning about LGBT history and contributions to the literature, and then let’s even dream bigger than that and let’s think about inclusive health and sex education and think about the impact that would have, particularly with regards to the HIV epidemic … There’s so much more that we can imagine if we’re able to imagine it and we work hard at it.


This report has been modified to describe more clearly state laws protecting religious freedom.