New York (AP) – Even as same-sex marriage edges closer to becoming legal across America, gay rights advocates face other challenges in 2015 that may not bring quick victories.
In Congress, for example, liberal Democrats plan to introduce civil rights bills that would outlaw a broad range of discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. However, Republicans will control both chambers in the new Congress, and there is no sign that Republican leaders will help the bills advance.
Absent such a federal law, activists will seek to pass more nondiscrimination laws at the state and local levels, but some efforts are meeting resistance.
The political landscape has shifted along with the rapid advance of same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 35 states. Several cases from states that still ban gay marriage have advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could decide during a Jan. 9 conference to hear one or more of them this term.
Given the possibility of a high court ruling in June legalizing gay marriage nationwide, some conservatives are pushing to enact state-level “religious freedom” bills designed to give more legal protections to people who might be accused of discrimination for actions they took in accordance with religious beliefs.
Friction over transgender rights is surfacing around the U.S., from schools to the military.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has suggested a ban on transgender people serving in the military be reviewed but gave no timetable, and advocacy groups are increasingly vocal with their impatience.
“There is no valid reason that our transgender troops should continue to be prohibited from serving openly and honestly,” said Ashley Broadway of the American Military Partner Association, which represents partners, spouses and families of LGBT service members.
Concern over the challenges facing transgender youth has intensified in recent days as authorities in Ohio investigate the apparent suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl. She was struck by a truck while on foot early Sunday.
A post on Tumblr, attributed to Alcorn and mentioning plans for suicide, recounts years of despair, coupled with pessimism about the future.
“The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in,” the post said. “I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. … There’s no way out.”
Accounts of Alcorn’s death prompted appeals from activists for greater understanding and acceptance of young people who convey that they are transgender. Some studies have shown that the rate of suicide attempts among transgender teens is far higher than for other youths.
School sports teams also are a source of contention. In Minnesota, a Republican state legislator suggested closer oversight of school sports after a statewide policy was approved letting transgender athletes play on teams that best align with their gender identity. Several other states have adopted similar policies.
While fights play out in state legislatures, Washington will be the launching point for what’s likely to be a multiyear effort to enact a federal civil rights bill.
Democrats plan to introduce such legislation in their chambers, with the backing of an array of gay rights organizations. Most of those groups have disavowed an older, more limited bill that would ban anti-gay workplace discrimination, and instead want a comprehensive measure that would encompass housing, public accommodations and other spheres, as well as employment.
On the gay marriage front, a bill recently introduced in South Carolina says no court employee could be required to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple if that would violate a “sincerely held religious belief.” In Indiana, a broader bill is being drafted that supporters say would protect business people who refuse to serve same-sex couples on the basis of their religious faith.
The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a national campaign to oppose such laws, hoping to replicate the outcome in Arizona last winter when Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill to expand religious exemptions after a national backlash from business leaders, gay rights groups and others.
Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU’s national office, anticipates a wide range of religious exemption laws to be introduced in 2015.
“Because marriage equality is no longer a hazy threat and is becoming a reality, the proponents of these laws are redoubling their efforts,” Rho said. “This is a sophisticated effort to try to undermine full equality for LGBT people through a variety of vehicles.”