Two weeks ago in this space I reported that LGBT rights were dominating US headlines due to the passage of anti-LGBT laws in Mississippi and North Carolina. Since then the furor has only grown greater, fueled in part by a surprising statement against the anti-trans portion of North Carolina’s law made by Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who told NBC News that transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice. In the same interview, Trump further declared that transgender reality show star Caitlyn Jenner would be welcome to use the ladies room at Trump Tower, something Jenner actually did several days ago. As she exited the building, Jenner quipped that “nobody got assaulted” during her visit.
Trump’s main opponent for the Republican nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, immediately pounced on Trump’s opposition to anti-trans so-called “bathroom laws,” making the issue the centerpiece of every campaign appearance. The Cruz campaign, which has long been infamous for the most viciously anti-LGBT rhetoric ever seen in a presidential race, fired out a series of lie-filled YouTube clips which equate transgender restroom use to giving “perverts and predators” free reign to sexually assault little girls. In his stump speeches, Cruz usually cites his own two young daughters as among the most vulnerable to attacks. Many major media outlets have pointedly noted that there’s no history of transgender citizens committing assaults in public restrooms, but Cruz and his many cronies on the far-right remain uninterested in such inconvenient facts.
As I noted in my previous column, our staunchest allies in these attacks on LGBT civil rights have been corporations and entertainers. Following the lead of rock legend Bruce Springsteen, at least a dozen more acts of national renown have also cancelled appearances in both North Carolina and Mississippi, including pop sensations Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato. But the biggest headlines in recent days belonged to department store giant Target, the nation’s sixth-largest retailer, which issued a statement declaring that transgender customers are welcome to use the fitting rooms and restrooms of their choice. Less than 24 hours later Target was hit by a boycott petition from the American Family Association (AFA), which is arguably the most powerful anti-LGBT hate group in the United States.
The AFA’s petition was immediately picked up by Breitbart News, a tragically popular website that relentlessly inflames its racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBT readership against progressive causes. Thanks to support from Breitbart News, other far-right websites, and a coalition of other anti-LGBT hate groups, within ten days the AFA’s boycott petition surged to a stunning 1.1 million signatures, a number never seen in earlier boycott campaigns against LGBT-friendly businesses. Breitbart News continues to post gleeful daily updates on Target’s stock value, which has dipped slightly since the boycott began, although Wall Street watchers have noted that so far the stock price seems to be fluctuating normally. Whether the massive response to the boycott petition will actually damage Target financially remains to be seen and local news reports about protests at some store locations have mentioned that customer traffic remains strong. So far Target has remained unwavering in the face of this unprecedented attack, issuing a followup statement which declares that they are “standing firmly” behind their new pro-trans policy.
Right wing, anti-LGBT, and conservative groups have declared that the “punishment” they are heaping on Target should serve as a warning to other corporations. But in fact, the opposite appears to be happening. In just the last few days the CEOs of more than a dozen major companies have added their names to a joint letter which calls for a repeal the North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law. These newcomers include the heads of Ikea USA, AIG, Merck, and United Guaranty Corporation, bringing the pro-LGBT business coalition to nearly 200 names. More good news has been seen in some other state legislatures, which have (for now) stalled their attempts to duplicate North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law as they nervously witness the still-growing corporate backlash. And in even better news, the state legislature of Massachusetts this week advanced a pro-transgender bill, prompting the mayor of Boston to proudly fly the trans pride flag over city hall.
Unfortunately, however, these state-by-state battles will surely continue to play out as hate groups advance and retreat, always prodding, always testing the waters to see how far public sentiment and pliable politicians will allow their crusade against LGBT citizens to move forward. The only guaranteed remedy against these attacks lies with the federal government and the federal judicial system, the latter of which provided great hope since my last report, ruling that transgender students cannot be discriminated against. While that ruling only applies to the several states under the jurisdiction of that one particular federal court, it does include North Carolina. But the ultimate hope for the continued advancement of LGBT rights continues to lie with the US Supreme Court, which already has one vacancy and will surely see at least two more during the next president’s first term. Perhaps obviously, these hopes will be dashed should a Republican win the White House this November as he would doubtlessly fill those vacancies with conservatives. It could be argued that no presidential election has ever been more fraught with both peril and promise for LGBT Americans.