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2021 Brings Major Milestones for Queer People

two woman hugging on a rug on the floor

Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Visibility and affirmation in leadership have helped change perceptions about queer people as leaders take concerns about queer rights seriously
  • Cultural changes, including the use of mostly online portals for socialization as the pandemic continues, has led to the normalization of pronoun introductions in Zoom and social media spaces
  • Diversity in pop culture brings more Black, trans, and queer people to the forefront

The Trump administration diminished some of the previous progress made for the queer community by continually opposing protections for queer people and undermining efforts to promote queer rights and equality—so the community as a whole was excited for new leadership in 2021.

The Biden administration has shown support for queer people already, but cultural sociologist Carolyn Chernoff, PhD, says, "I'm skeptical of government protections and policies," noting that these are only "a floor, not a ceiling." Her perspective underlines that policies and protections often offer minimum standards rather than goals for true affirmation and liberation.

Social norms shift "slowly and quickly in ways that are generally unexpected. I think we've seen a lot of movement around gender that I would not have anticipated," Chernoff adds. This year is only a little over halfway complete, and we've already hit milestones that demonstrate multiple wins for the queer community across all aspects of our lives.

However, progress should not overshadow the hardships the most marginalized queer people must endure on a daily basis. "I do think we need the full range of humanity represented, whether mainstream or niche or subculture, normative or otherwise, in order to have actual safety and respect and decency for all people," Chernoff explains.

Biden Administration Centers Queer Leaders and Protections

Some of President Biden's first actions in office secured protections for queer people. On day one, he affirmed the Supreme Court ruling that prohibits discrimination against queer people in the workplace by extending protections to education, housing, healthcare, and credit. Within the same week, he repealed the ban on transgender members of the military serving openly as their authentic selves and took several other actions which affirmed and uplifted queer rights.

By February, Pete Buttigieg became the first openly queer cabinet member confirmed by the Senate, serving as Transportation Secretary. In March, Dr. Rachel Levine became the first openly transgender cabinet member, serving as Assistant Secretary for Health.

Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

Visibility and acknowledgment are necessary so that acceptance and appreciation can develop society-wide. This will have a tremendous impact on mental and emotional health.

— Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

The administration has continued to seek and affirm queer leadership and is normalizing the observance of queer holidays and days of mourning, but there is still much work to do to promote queer rights, says Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC, a therapist with Heartfulness Consulting.

"President Biden promoting events like the Trans Day of Visibility and Vice President Harris attending Pride absolutely make a difference," she says. She adds that the administration and society as a whole must do more than observe holidays to truly support queer people and eliminate suffering.

In June, the Supreme Court issued an official interpretation of Title IX to extend protections on the basis of sexuality and gender identity. This interpretation underlines that discrimination against queer people is considered sex-based discrimination, thereby expanding the way the statute can be applied in educational settings.

Queer Athletes Find a Place on the Field

Because Title IX protections prohibit discrimination in school settings, school athletic programs must comply with those standards. This means that federal law now requires schools to allow transgender girls to compete with cisgender girls in sports even when state legislation or institutional policies ban participation.

As the summer progressed, Olympic competitions began. At least 183 queer athletes competed at this year's Olympics, more than tripling participation since the last summer games. The list includes the first openly transgender Olympians who are competing as their authentic selves.

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand will be the first openly trans woman participating, and she is joined by at least a few nonbinary athletes—including fan favorites Quinn, a Canadian soccer player competing with the women's team, and Alana Smith, a skateboarder who represented the United States. This kind of open representation has not been possible in the past.

Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

Before understanding and appreciation can develop in our society, queer and trans people need to be visible and in order to be safely visible, they need to be protected to the greatest extent we are able to do so.

Although inclusion is important, it's also crucial to highlight that commentators misgendered Alana Smith when they competed. Perry adds that respecting pronouns is just one aspect of keeping queer people safe, and it is a necessary aspect of ensuring that queer people are safe from bigotry and discrimination.

Discrimination is also still a pervasive part of Olympic qualifications. Both transgender and cisgender athletes can be, and have been, disqualified if their testosterone levels do not meet specific standards set for women's competitions, even if those levels are natural to their bodies. Because trans women are sometimes misperceived to have an unfair advantage over cisgender women, hormone standards only apply to women's categories. No hormone standards are set for men's competitions.

Role Models Emerge in Pop Culture

It might not seem like a big deal for celebrities to come out as queer in the 2020s—but in some spaces, queer identity is still typically kept quiet. Despite ties to communities that have previously rejected or silenced queer people, some are fearlessly expressing their authenticity.

It is typically considered taboo for celebrities with an especially young audience to share about their queer identities, but Jojo Siwa, an entertainer who reaches a large following of predominantly elementary schoolers, celebrated her queer identity in a TikTok video in January when she was just 17.

She continues to speak openly about pansexuality and the pride she has for her queer relationship and identity. She urges fans not to support her unless they also support the queer community as a whole.

It is unprecedented for someone of her age and with her specific following to come out, and she is an important presence for queer kids who often lack representation and role models. When presenting at the GLAAD media awards, she said, "I think it’s really cool that kids all around the world who look up to me can now see that loving who you want to love is totally awesome."

Carolyn Chernoff, PhD

One of the best things about Lil Nas X is that he makes no attempts towards respectability politics.

— Carolyn Chernoff, PhD

As one of the most visible Black, queer men in mainstream music, Lil Nas X broke barriers by overcoming the toxic masculinity and queerphobia typically associated with rap and country genres. Instead, his music creates space to celebrate queer identity in a convergence of multiple styles that brings communities together.

This year, he released the song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” with a music video that has strong themes of Biblical persecution and historical references to queer identity. The song challenges power dynamics and journeys towards liberation with lyrics and images that explore oppression and resistance.

He recently followed that hit with “Industry Baby,“ with lyrics about fighting the internal battles and external systems, seeking knowledge and paths for success, and continued pride for his queer identity. The accompanying video uses visual storytelling to convey similar themes through subversive images-including Black men dancing naked while imprisoned together.

NPR recently referred to him as "an unapologetic messiah for today's young, queer generation." Chernoff adds, “He is representing himself and the models he needed to see, so in addition to being young and Black, he is sexual, challenges static and heteronormative notions of the ‘good, masculine gay.’”

Trolls continue to challenge various celebrities who openly explore their queer identities or use their platforms to share information about queer rights—especially those who actively denounce the problematic aspects of dominant culture—but many have found the strength to be themselves and advocate for marginalized members of their community.

Online Communication Promotes Affirming Social Norms

During the pandemic, work, school, and socializing moved online. As Covid-19 and variants of the virus linger, many still communicate with others primarily through these platforms.

Although many queer-led spaces already normalized pronoun introductions before lockdowns, relying on online communication pushed this concept into more mainstream spaces. Email signatures and display names on Zoom readily became spaces where people placed their pronouns, and this spring, Instagram added a feature to do the same.

Offering space for people to share pronouns and normalizing the practice of not assuming anyone else's creates safer spaces for trans and nonbinary people as well as others who don't need cisnormative standards. It offers the opportunity to be seen by others with a more intentional culture around visibility so that no one is forced to hide their authenticity.

Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

Being invisible is one of the worst things imaginable for human mental and emotional health.

— Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

Chernoff said that these features offer participants control over the way others see them and highlights that both queer and disability rights are strengthened through greater access to online options. She adds, "I do think the younger generations are benefitting from decades and centuries of struggle, and are helping to bring about more safety, peace, and respect for queer people across gender and sexuality labels."

96% of queer youth said social media has a positive impact on their well-being but also admitted that it can come with negativity. Social media acts as an informal learning environment for queer youth, who spend time seeking resources and connections on these platforms. Queer youth learn about differing labels and practice self-expression and sharing about their identities, increasing their confidence and reducing stress when they come out.

Queer youth seek role models in these spaces and lean on online communities for emotional and social support. They often cultivate a queer-affirming experience for their own use as consumers and over time begin to share content that educates others or specifically supports queer people in their own networks.

Chernoff said, "Representation, visibility, and cultural change all drive each other. Which comes first? It depends. When there's more safety in being your authentic self, it's easier to be out. When you're out, it's sometimes easier to be an advocate or activist."

What This Means For You

Celebrate the strides we've made so far this year while reflecting on areas where we still need to grow as a society. Take comfort in the ways queer people are newly protected, affirmed, and visible—but don't stop fighting where inequity and discrimination continues.

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Article Sources
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  1. Human Rights Campaign. President Biden's pro-LGBTQ+ timeline. Updated June 30, 2021.

  2. Outsports. The Olympics and NBC failed Alana Smith and the non-binary community. Published July 27, 2021.

  3. LGBTQ Nation. Two more cis Black women banned from Olympics for their natural testosterone levels. Published July 2, 2021.

  4. NPR Music. Lil Nas X, "Industry Baby." Published July 26.

  5. Trevor Project. National survey on LGBTQ youth mental health 2021. Published May 11, 2021.

  6. Craig SL, Eaton AD, McInroy LB, Leung VWY, Krishnan S. Can social media participation enhance LGBTQ+ youth well-being? Development of the social media benefits scale. Soc Media Soc. 2021;7(1). doi:10.1177/2056305121988931