Despite the Pandemic, the Biggest LGBTQ Legal Battles Are Hurtling Forward

The SCOTUS employment decisions could be out even sooner than expected.

The coronavirus pandemic has largely shuttered the courts, but last week, lawyers at the ACLU were still busy drafting a lawsuit challenging an unprecedented Idaho bill that bars transgender students athletes from sports.

HB500, signed into law by Idaho Gov. Brad Little at the end of March, is seen as among the most pressing LGBTQ legal challenges of the moment. ACLU attorneys will argue that a judge needs to hear a challenge to the new law before courts fully reopen because the law could do irrevocable harm to trans people.

“We will absolutely be arguing that it’s essential because if we don’t get a decision in time for fall sports, that’s going to have a really direct and irreparable impact on trans athletes,” Gabriel Arkles, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU tells NewNowNext.

HB500, not the only pressing LGBTQ legal matter on the docket. Before the pandemic swept through the nation, legal advocates were critical LGBTQ civil rights cases at every level. For the most part, those cases haven’t slowed, says Sharon McGowan, legal director of Lambda Legal.

“I always try to make sure people know that just because the courthouse doors are closed to physical foot traffic, it doesn’t mean that the courts are closed for business and Lambda is very much still litigating cases across the country,” McGowan tells NewNowNext.

Lambda is prepping a challenge to Idaho’s HB509, the another new law that bans transgender people from updating their birth certificates. That’s because in 2018, Lambda won a federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of two transgender women who were denied amneded birth certificates. The new law directly violates that legal precedent, says, McGowan.

“For Idaho to basically just reenact the exact same law shows a real disdain for the rule of law that I think is troubling in its own right,” she says.

Cases that were pressing before have gained new urgency, says McGowan, like challenging the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine anti-discrimination protections in healthcare. Protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination as a pandemic ravages the nation and sends hundreds of thousands to ERs has never been more threatening. The same has been true for legal advocates representing LGBTQ people in prisons and ICE detention centers, where they represent some of the most vulnerable people already. LGBTQ attorneys have filed countless emergency petitions aiming to free queer and HIV+ people incarcerated in prisons and ICE facilities.

“Those cases are moving very, very fast right now,” says Arkles. “These people’s lives are at stake. You need to release them.”

Perhaps most pressing, LGBTQ people across the nation, are waiting anxiously for the Supreme to rule on blockbuster cases about LGBTQ non-discrimination workplace protections.

Arkles says the pandemic won’t likely slow the SCOTUS the decisions, which are expected this year.

“We actually think if anything, we might see a decision more quickly than we would otherwise because the Court isn’t hearing new arguments,” he says. “So, it’s entirely possible that the justices will be focusing their time on writing opinions right now.”

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.
@shoeleatherkate