The Biggest Moments in LGBTQ+ U.S. Politics of 2021

From historic wins for nonbinary elected officials to record-high numbers of anti-transgender bills, it was a year of highs and lows.

After a year like 2020, we could have gone without hearing the word “unprecedented” again for a while. Then 2021 happened.

With an ~unparalleled~ start in January, it was another year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic against a backdrop of political drama. For LGBTQ+ politics in the United States, even with the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, state-level attacks and gains still played out with steps forward and back as if nothing had changed in the White House.

Below, find a recap of eight significant moments from a year of highs and lows for the LGBTQ+ community.

  1. Biden administration appointed over 200 LGBTQ+ staffers

    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    When President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office in January, hundreds of new staff members came along with the two new top hires — and many are out and proud. Dr. Rachel Levine became the first out trans Senate-confirmed federal official as the Assistant Health Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay Cabinet member to be confirmed by the Senate when he became the Secretary of Transportation.

    A host of other LGBTQ+ professionals joined the administration, from out lesbian Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to out gay social secretary Carlos Elizondo.

  2. Sarah McBride became the first out trans state senator

    When friend of the Bidens Sarah McBride took office on January 12, she instantly became the highest ranking openly transgender elected official in the U.S. After winning her election to become a state senator in Delaware in November 2020, she became the first ever openly trans state senator from any state. McBride had already blazed a trail in 2016 when she became the first openly trans person to address a major party political convention when spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

    “Diversity in government isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity,” she told Logo earlier this year. “We cannot craft effective solutions for diverse communities if we don’t have the diversity of those communities represented at the table.”

  3. President Biden reversed ban on transgender military members’ service

    Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

    After President Trump unceremoniously tweeted his intention to ban any transgender service member from the U.S. military in 2017, President Biden signed an order changing course on that directive on January 25, 2021, his first Monday in office.

    “America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive. The military is no exception,” the order said. “Simply put, it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”

  4. State Rep. Park Cannon charged with felony for knocking on Georgia governor’s door

    VIRGINIE KIPPELEN/AFP via Getty Images

    Many were concerned about a historically restrictive voting law in Georgia that would limit drop boxes and criminalize approaching voters in line to offer food or water along with other inhibitory measures. Openly queer Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon knocked on Gov. Brian Kemp’s office door twice during the closed-door signing of the bill on March 25 before three state patrol officers handcuffed her and took her into custody.

    Cannon was released after being charged with a felony of obstruction of law enforcement and a misdemeanor of preventing or disrupting the General Assembly. She posted on Facebook, “I will not stand by while our voting rights are threatened across this state, the state I swore an oath to represent with integrity, honesty, and respect for the millions of people who live and work in this community.”

  5. Supreme Court upheld transgender rights

    Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Out

    Transgender student Gavin Grimm (pictured above) simply wanted to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Virginia, but when he came out, his school adopted a new policy prohibiting him from doing so. Represented by the ACLU, Grimm sued the Gloucester County School Board and — after four years of litigation — the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in his favor.

    On June 28, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the school board’s request to review the case, which meant that the lower court’s ruling was upheld. It was a landmark ruling for transgender rights.

  6. More state bills attacking transgender people — especially youth — introduced than ever before

    Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

    A record-breaking number of anti-transgender bills were introduced in 2021 at the state level, mostly focused on removing access to gender-affirming health care and children’s participation in sports. Not all of them passed, but many did, with devastating effects on families across the country.

    Different organizations tracking the bills reported different numbers — the ACLU tracked 112 while Equality Federation found 210 and Lambda Legal 374 — but there was no doubt 2021’s wave of legislation was unprecedented.

  7. School boards banned LGBTQ+ books

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

    Across the country, books with LGBTQ+ characters and content were taken off the shelves in schools and libraries at a dizzying pace this year by school boards and other small local government organizations. The American Library Association reported a 60% increase in book challenges, and most of these books dealt with issues of race or LGBTQ+ themes. Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir and George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto in particular were the subjects of many ban attempts.

    In October, Texas lawmaker Matt Krause released a list of 850 books he said might make students “feel discomfort” and instructed school districts to inform him whether they currently had the books. Sixty-two percent of the books had LGBTQ+ content. Students, librarians, authors, and others are organizing to make sure youth maintain access to important books.

  8. Number of nonbinary elected officials grew on election night by 30%

    Nearly 1,000 openly LGBTQ+ elected officials are now serving in the U.S., a record high the country reached this year. Within that growing number, only 10 are nonbinary. However, five more were elected this November, and that number will grow to 13 after they take office next year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

    Among them are Liliana Bakhtiari, the first LGBTQ+ Muslim elected official in Georgia and first nonbinary person to serve on a major city’s city council, and Thu Nguyen, the first nonbinary person elected to office in Massachusetts. Xander Orenstein of Pennsylvania also became the first nonbinary person elected to the U.S. judiciary.

Sarah Prager is the author of three books on LGBTQ+ history and her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, and many other outlets.
@Sarah_Prager