Last month, on a bus in Chicago, a man repeatedly screamed “faggot” at me and threatened to bash my head in. Two weeks ago, at a hotel in Tennessee, several employees were downright rude when they saw that I was sharing a room with my partner of 11 years. And last week, as we were walking to dinner on a well-lit street in Memphis, for the first time ever my partner brushed my hand away when I reached for his. He felt that it was not safe for two men to hold hands.
Since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, some have alleged that LGBTQ+ people no longer have legitimate concerns about their safety and civil rights. The Atlantic published a piece in 2019, “The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over,” that downplayed the threat of violence to LGBTQ+ people and quoted a University of Virginia Law School professor who claimed that Supreme Court decisions protecting LGBTQ+ rights, like marriage equality and participation in consensual sexual relationships, were “secure” from Republican efforts to roll them back.
The Atlantic piece was wrong. A 2020 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that “LGBT people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization.” And the naive idea that LGBTQ+ civil rights are permanently secured by Supreme Court precedent died with a leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that is set to reverse half a century of law securing a woman’s right to an abortion.
Stripping women of their right to bodily autonomy is just the beginning. The abortion case will lay the legal groundwork to undo decades of civil rights decisions that protect LGBTQ+ people.
If anyone doubts this Supreme Court’s intentions on LGBTQ+ rights, they need look no further than Justice Alito’s crassly political speech to the Federalist Society in November 2020, in which he attacked the court’s opinion recognizing marriage equality.
An earlier harbinger of the trajectory of LGBTQ+ rights came in 2017 with a procedural win for the owner of a bakery who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. It is likely only a matter of time before the Supreme Court tells owners of restaurants, hotels, and businesses that they can refuse to serve gay people.
Gutting LGBTQ+ rights is not just the province of the Supreme Court. The recently passed Florida law that’s colloquially known as “Don’t Say Gay” is strategically written so as to stop a teacher from answering simple questions from students like why another student has two mommies. Worse, it contains an enforcement provision that pits members of the public against their children’s teachers. When Disney stood up for LGBTQ+ rights and criticized the law, Florida’s governor and legislature mounted a financial assault on the company in retaliation.
In a more underhanded attack, high-profile Republicans — including members of Congress — have dredged up the disproven and vile trope that LGBTQ+ people are child predators. Criticizing Florida’s discriminatory law will get you labeled a “groomer” by the likes of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene or Governor Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw.
The onslaught has just begun. Last week, a Virginia legislator sued Barnes & Noble to prevent it from selling books to minors that support LGBTQ+ rights, and a Trump-endorsed candidate for Michigan’s legislature called for a ban on same-sex marriage because it is outside the “Christian moral order.”
I remember when being gay was a fireable offense. In 1990, during my Department of Justice security clearance investigation after I was hired as a federal prosecutor, the FBI learned that I’m gay. There were no protections for LGBTQ+ people at that time, and the DOJ authorized my firing. The US attorney in Detroit, who later became the chief justice of Michigan’s Supreme Court, chose to keep me on. But for years after that, I felt I was working on borrowed time.
LGBTQ+ people, particularly those of us who are older, live with the daily fear that our livelihood, relationships, and safety can be ripped from us by the whims of others, simply for living a life that truthfully acknowledges who we are. There are periods of time, sometimes years, when that uneasiness recedes into the background of our lives. This is not one of those times. Today we recognize the dark clouds that are gathering. Our sense of dread feels familiar. We have been here before.
When Trump was elected, my long-time close friendship with a DOJ colleague unraveled. He insisted that my concerns about what would happen to LGBTQ+ people with Trump at the helm were exaggerated. But within two hours of Trump’s swearing-in, all mention of LGBTQ+ issues was removed from the White House website. A series of attacks on LGBTQ+ people from Trump and his administrative agencies followed.
And Trump’s open arms to right-wing extremist groups led to renewed anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and violence. In 2017, white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., chanted homophobic slurs, and in 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups had risen by 43 percent between 2018 and 2019.
But Trump’s biggest stain on America is a Supreme Court that is poised to dismantle decades of civil rights advances for generations to come, again making LGBTQ+ people second-class citizens. I am not aware of any time in American history when the court acknowledged a fundamental personal right and then took it away. But here we are. I’m angry. But mostly, I’m heartbroken.
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.