Young LGBTQ People Aren’t Waiting for Democrats to Protect Them
After an extended hiatus, in-person Pride returned to Cincinnati this year. Once a cornerstone of the city’s queer community, the event was canceled in both 2020 and 2021 due to Covid. For most of the pandemic, the state’s largest pride marches were confined to private, socially distanced gatherings. After two years of waiting, Pride in 2022 has been especially grandiose, with 100,000 people from Cincinnati and the greater metropolitan area in attendance.
But the day’s proceedings were lent a surreal quality by the wider social context. On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ignoring half a century of precedent and threatening the bodily autonomy of millions of people. But the court didn’t stop at abortion. In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that SCOTUS should reconsider “substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” the cases that protected contraception, ended the enforcement of sodomy laws, and legalized same-sex marriage.
Simultaneously, conservative rhetoric towards the LGBTQ+ community has escalated, with a wave of anti-trans and “Don’t Say Gay” bills sweeping through statehouses across the country. These conflicting realities represent the horrifying contradictions that define American life. How can a queer person celebrate Pride, and embrace the assumptions made by that act of celebration, as the country swings further to the right?
It’s a question that Lexi Willis, a 20-year-old who will be a student at the University of Cincinnati this fall, has asked. Willis could only find one word to describe how they felt after the Supreme Court’s decision: numb. “We’re seeing a reversal of that progress, in real time. In an age where we, Gen-Z, are supposed to be living in a world more tolerant than the one our parents and grandparents had.”
They have other reasons to be concerned. Willis is bisexual and a demigirl—someone who identifies as both female and agender. Unlike some of her peers, Lexi “never had a coming out moment.” Rather, they “just stopped denying it and went from there.” Fortunately, Willis found a community of people who cared for her, both online and off, which is why she found Thomas’s comments on Obergefell and Lawrence so alarming.
Willis was a teenager when same-sex marriage was first legalized. “I remember my friend immediately texting me, crying, and just [being] so happy. I wasn’t even out yet and I understood.” The thought that the United States might revert back was shocking. “How can I imagine my life without those rights?”
But Willis doesn’t imagine the Biden administration—or the Democrats—will secure them. This sentiment is felt by young people across the country. An April poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour, and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion showed that Biden had the support of only 37 percent of millennials and Gen Z—the lowest among all age groups.
“I don’t feel represented fully by the Democratic Party,” said Willis. Without firm opposition, they believe those rights will soon be revoked, and that the worst is yet to come. “This is the beginning of something a lot deeper, a lot more sinister, and I don’t wish to find out in what way.”
This feeling permeates every corner of Cincinnati’s young, queer community. Lauren Ulsh, like Willis, is bisexual, but described their gender identity as “much more complicated.” Ulsh went to Columbus for their first Pride event, saying it felt rewarding, but isolating.
“This is the only bubble I can be myself in, and everywhere else is unsafe, and the bubble is rather fragile.” Ulsh worries about Obergefell and Lawrence being overturned in their lifetime, calling politicians “so far removed from today’s society that it feels like nothing we say right now will mean anything.” Ulsh is similarly critical of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party’s ability to stop the tide of hate. “I don’t trust Biden or anyone else in office right now, apart from a select few—like AOC.”
Jim Obergefell—the lead plaintiff in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide—is also worried about the future. He is now 56, and is currently running for Ohio’s 89th district. Obergefell made his fears about the consequences of the Dobbs decision widely known, warning that LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block, with public violence against queer people—like Patriot Front’s planned riot at a Pride event in Idaho and the Proud Boys protesting in Nevada—becoming more frequent. “We will see continued attacks on our community, both in governing bodies and on the streets” led by figures who “do not believe the LGBTQ community deserves equality, or equity.”
Obergefell was critical of some of the Democratic Party’s strategy in recent years, such as the choice by Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn, and other party leaders to campaign for Henry Cellular, one of the only anti-abortion Democrats in the House. “It’s not a decision I would have made,” he said, but Obergefell still insisted people should “vote in every election” to create governing bodies which “look like us, and share our values.” In 2020, an analysis from The Washington Post found that if “LGBT voters stayed home, Trump might have won the 2020 presidential election.”
Samael Nasir, a drag performer, is far more cynical about the electoral process. Nasir has been frightened by the increased demonization that drag performers have faced from Republican politicians. “It’s scary to see the parallels in history of bad people in power finding marginalized groups to torment, before moving in to actively harm them.”
Nevertheless, Nasir doesn’t think voting will be the solution, and says that Democrats should stop behaving as if it is. “We voted for the ‘right’ people—like we were told—and we have them currently sitting on their hands watching the right mow over our rights like a weedy yard, just to turn around and beg for donations.”
Instead of contributing to politicians who fundraise off these issues while failing to meaningfully act, Nasir suggests helping queer people directly. “March with them when they organize. Re-share their fundraisers and crowdfunds and individual payment info.”
When asked if the danger posed by the far right would stop them from celebrating at Pride, Lauren Ulsh scoffed at the idea. “I do think public Pride events are getting more and more dangerous, but it will never deter me from celebrating who I am with people like me.”
“The events are called Pride for a reason, and surrender is the worst possible move right now. Nasir echoed that sentiment. “You can’t get rid of queer people. You can run them into hiding, but history proves that we thrived in the underground communities we were forced to build—when our regular ones no longer serviced us. To be a queer person is to be defiant.”