50.50: Opinion

Biden targets conversion therapy, but is it mere lip service?

LGBTQ executive order is not enough to save us from minority authoritarian rule and regular political violence

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
1 July 2022, 12.01am

President Biden’s new executive order for LGBTIQ rights can be undone by future administrations


Illustration by Inge Snip. All rights reserved

Much to some of my liberal readers’ dismay, I am not the biggest fan of US president Joe Biden.

Don’t get me wrong. As a transgender American, I recognise and appreciate the fact that no sitting president has ever previously spoken in support of queer and trans dignity, equality and rights to the extent that he has. It’s not even close.

And I am grateful for the president’s forceful affirmation of trans equality and acknowledgment of the Transgender Day of Visibility, and Pride Month. In addition to using his presidential ‘bully pulpit’ to speak up for LGBTQ rights, Biden is now turning to the federal bureaucracy and executive power to do what he can to oppose conversion therapy and to shore up LGBTQ rights in the face of an onslaught of legislative attacks from individual states.

Unfortunately, what can be done with executive action alone amounts to something like a bandaid on a gaping wound.

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Biden signed an executive order on 15 June commanding the federal Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take 200 days to issue new guidance to states, in the form of sample policies demonstrating federal standards. That sounds good, but what will the president do when the most viciously anti-LGBTQ state governments refuse to comply?

The order contains a promise to “increase the availability of technical assistance and training to health care and social service providers on evidence-based, promising practices for supporting the health, including mental health, of LGBTQI+ youth, and on the dangers of so-called conversion therapy”.

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In addition, the president ordered HHS and the Federal Trade Commission to consider whether they can take action to prevent federal funding of “conversion therapy” and/or to declare the practice deceptive, and thus “to issue such consumer warnings or notices as may be appropriate”.

The order says the US government will work to end conversion therapy internationally, and promises action to support equality for LGBTQ individuals in both the child welfare and mental health systems.

While this move is a welcome one, I fear that it will amount to too little, too late. And, of course, the Biden administration’s federal guidelines and executive orders can be undone by a future Republican administration.

‘Bernie bros’ get the side eye

As things stand, a supermajority of 60 senators in the 100-seat chamber must be willing to allow a bill to proceed to a vote. This method of preventing a vote on legislation is referred to as a filibuster.

Given that the reach of executive action is so limited, I would much prefer that Senate Democrats abolish the filibuster so they can pursue legislation such as the languishing Equality Act – but the Biden administration seems to have no appetite to give a strong and sustained push to make this happen. I was glad to see the president recently call for an exception to the filibuster to codify the protections afforded by Roe into law, although I would like to see LGBTQ rights treated with the same urgency. I also fear that, even in the unlikely eventuality that Congress does enshrine the right to abortion care in federal law, the Supreme Court will overturn the law unless the Biden administration and Senate Democrats find the wherewithal to add justices to the court in order to restore fairness.

Meanwhile, two conservative Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, want no part of abolishing the filibuster or rebalancing the Supreme Court, and I don’t see them making an exception for abortion or the right to privacy.

Progressive Americans and those most harmed by Republican policies would appreciate being able to feel that Manchin and Sinema are being pressured in every way possible, publicly and privately. The Biden administration is not providing us with the sense that they are.

Unfortunately, many American liberals seem to think that any criticism of Democratic Party leadership is somehow aiding and abetting the authoritarian Republicans, and they regard critical progressive Democrats with suspicion.

Even those of us loyal Democratic critics who affirm that our first priority in voting is harm reduction (and so we always vote Democrat) receive the side-eye and are at times accused of being “Bernie bros” worthy only of contempt. (Our critics’ concerns are that young people will not show up to the polls in sufficient numbers, and/or that too many left-wingers voting third party in America’s highly flawed presidential democracy – with its solidly entrenched two-party system and frankly absurd Electoral College – may throw an election to the Republicans.)

Biden calling enemy of democracy Mitch McConnell ‘a man of your word’ – this is wildly out of touch

My position is that we must be able to criticise our own party in good faith if we want it to be better. Simply falling into line is a recipe for stagnation at best, and, unfortunately, “stagnation” is not an unreasonable descriptor for the Democratic Party establishment. A New York Times columnist, Jamelle Bouie, recently described the party leadership as a “gerontocracy”.

As Bouie aptly observes: “What’s missing from party leaders, an absence that is endlessly frustrating to younger liberals, is any sense of urgency and crisis – any sense that our system is on the brink.”

As a case in point, he refers to Biden’s high praise for Republican senator Mitch McConnell at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast. A Democratic president describing one of the Republican leaders most singularly responsible for the right-wing authoritarian ascendancy that we face as “a man of your word”; praising the senator who illegitimately stacked the Supreme Court as “a man of honour”; thanking this enemy of democracy and human rights “for being my friend” – this is all wildly out of touch.

Such farcical comity across party lines should have no place in our current era, when the stakes are no less than an inclusive democratic future with civil rights and equality for all, or a brutal fascist future in which LGBTQ people are at immediate risk, with the rapid escalation of dehumanising rhetoric and violence suggesting the potential for eventual genocide.

In fairness to Biden, his comments on the state laws targeting LGBTQ, and especially trans, rights indicate that he does have a real sense of the stakes. But then he goes back to respecting the norms of a bygone era, using his bully pulpit to send decidedly mixed messages on the extent to which he will really fight for those of us harmed by GOP fascism.

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I am grateful to Biden for speaking up on behalf of LGBTQ Americans and for seeking to do what little he can on our behalf through the federal bureaucracy.

At the same time, I cannot in good faith state that I think it will be enough to save us from a dark future of minority authoritarian rule and regular political violence against racial and ethnic minorities, women, and queer folks.

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