Year in Review: 2022 brought LGBTQ gains amid backdrop of attacks

  • by Lisa Keen
  • Wednesday December 28, 2022
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WNBA star Brittney Griner was imprisoned for months in Russia before being released December 8. Photo: Bigstock photo
WNBA star Brittney Griner was imprisoned for months in Russia before being released December 8. Photo: Bigstock photo

There was no shortage of dramatic and consequential events to consider as the top stories for the LGBTQ community in 2022, and most of those threaten to spill over into 2023: the U.S. Supreme Court's interest in significantly undermining equal protection of the law for LGBTQ people; the escalating number of attacks against LGBTQ Pride events, gathering places, and people; and Republican capture of the U.S. House majority.

But for every troubling development, there was a happy or hopeful one. Here are our picks for the most important news stories of 2022 for the LGBTQ community:

Number 10: Griner held by Russia

As the U.S. and its European allies announced sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities announced March 5 that they had detained an American in Moscow.

Brittney Griner, a lesbian professional basketball player and Olympic gold medalist, became the focus of monthslong worldwide attention after she was detained at a Russian airport, accused of possessing marijuana. Authorities held her just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Griner acknowledged having a small amount of hash oil in her bag, saying it was for medical purposes and that she had meant to leave it at home. Griner had been playing with a Russian women's basketball team for eight years, earning four times what she earns as an All-Star member of the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team. Russian authorities scheduled her for trial.

By May, the U.S. government announced it believed Griner was being "wrongfully detained," and Russian media began claiming that a deal was underway for the U.S. to exchange a convicted Russian arms distributor for Griner's return. Meanwhile, Griner's spouse, Cherelle Griner, made appearances on national media outlets to pressure President Joe Biden to do more to secure Griner's release.

Russian officials put Griner on trial in early July and declared her to be guilty. In August, they announced she was sentenced to nine years in prison. More than three months went by before the White House suddenly announced it had reached an agreement with Russian officials to exchange the arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner.

On December 8, Griner was freed and flown back to the U.S. She issued a statement December 16, thanking all the people and fans who provided love and help. She also noted that she will be playing with the Phoenix Mercury again next season.

She also pledged to work to help secure the release of Paul Whelan, another American sentenced to a long prison term in Russia. The Biden administration wanted both Griner and Whelen released, but only Griner was freed.

Number 9: LGBTQ people targets of global attacks

Just three days before Griner was released from a Russian prison camp, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation to prohibit the expression or dissemination in social media, television, movies, or other media of any statements with positive information about "non-traditional sexual relations." A similar ban, directed only at "propaganda aimed at children," was enforced just before the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Under the new expanded law, violators can be fined up to $80,000.

The Indonesian parliament in December enacted a law penalizing sex outside of marriage in a country where same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.

In Qatar, LGBTQ rights gained considerable global attention. In a dramatic moment at a news conference at the World Cup, the media chief for the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) came out as gay and defended FIFA President Gianni Infantino against criticism that the host country and games were trying to halt any visibility of LGBTQ players or spectators. At a contentious November 19 news conference on the eve of the competition, the press pummeled Infantino with questions about various civil rights issues surrounding the games in Qatar, a country that makes sex between men punishable for up to three years. It was near the end of that news conference that FIFA media chief Bryan Swanson took the microphone to say he himself was gay and to vouch for Infantino's efforts to protect the rights of visitors to the games. Later, during one of the tournament's first matches, a man wearing a Superman T-shirt and carrying a rainbow flag ran onto the field to protest having the World Cup in Qatar.

In Iran, which has been experiencing unprecedented street protests against the government's harsh treatment of women, the government, in August, reportedly convicted two women in relation to their efforts to help LGBTQ people escape the country. LGBTQ activist Zahra Seddiqi Hamedani and her associate, Elham Chobdar, were said to have been given the death sentences. The United Nations issued a statement in September, strongly condemning the death sentences and calling on the Iranian government to annul the convictions and retract the sentences.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this year in a case that could gut protections for LGBTQ people. Photo: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States  

Number 8: Supreme Court appears poised to gut protections
The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative supermajority seemed to signal December 5 that it is prepared to allow certain business owners to violate state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations. The hints came pouring out of oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, a case out of Colorado staged by the ardently anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

ADF filed the lawsuit in Colorado for web designer Lorie Smith, who wants to sell custom-written wedding websites to heterosexual couples — but not same-sex couples. And ADF argued that Smith's work amounts to an "expression" and that the public accommodations law is violating her First Amendment right to freedom of expression by requiring she serve same-sex couples. Colorado said the discrimination at issue is the web designer's discriminatory treatment of a group of people protected by the Colorado law.

Justice Neil Gorsuch stated, "what would be impermissible is discrimination on the basis of status, but what would be permissible is refusing service because of a disagreement about views." He offered the notion that the web designer was not discriminating against same-sex couples. His evidence? The web designer had LGBTQ customers for other products and said she would sell a same-sex wedding website to a heterosexual couple.

Because public accommodations laws typically prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and other categories, Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned during oral argument, "This would be the first time in the court's history that that it would say that ... a commercial business open to the public, serving the public, that it could refuse to serve a customer based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. ..." It seems unlikely all six conservatives will vote to gut public accommodations laws so dramatically. But there was little hope in the oral argument that the court might uphold protections for same-sex couples seeking wedding websites, cakes, and other services.

In May, Karine Jean-Pierre became both the first Black person and the first lesbian to serve as White House press secretary. Photo: Screen capture via White House YouTube  

Number 7: Democrats control of White House and Congress
President Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress gave enormous consideration to LGBTQ people during 2022. There were the perennial June Pride-related events also held by other Democratic administrations. And Biden signed an executive order directing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase access to mental health services for LGBTQ youth and to eradicate the promotion of conversion therapies.

The White House distributed thousands of mpox vaccines to cities with large Pride events taking place. At a White House Pride celebration in June, Biden said his administration has "more LGBTQ+ people than any administration or every administration combined — I really mean it."

Biden made many appointments in 2021, including the first openly LGBTQ cabinet member (Pete Buttigieg) and the first federal circuit appeals judge (Beth Robinson). In 2022, he promoted an openly LGBTQ person to be his chief spokesperson: Karine Jean-Pierre. In May, she became both the first Black person and the first lesbian to serve as White House press secretary.

In Congress, 10 years ago, there were only four openly LGBTQ members of Congress — all members of the U.S. House. By the end of 2022, that number had grown to 13. In the upcoming new congressional session, there will be 11 openly LGBTQ House members (even though two incumbents lost reelection) and two senators. Having openly LGBTQ members in Congress has obviously had a positive impact on the community. They were crucial in pressing for the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which helps protect the right of same-sex couples to marriage equality.

Out gubernatorial candidates Maura Healey, left, won in Massachusetts; Tina Kotek was victorious in Oregon; and incumbent Jared Polis was easily reelected governor in Colorado. Photos: Courtesy the candidates  

Number 6: Two lesbians elected governor; gay man reelected
Two lesbians were elected governor of their states in 2022: Maura Healey did so in Massachusetts where she won in a landslide on Election Day, and Tina Kotek won in Oregon in a close race that took a couple of days before the result was known.

Healey served for eight years as the state's attorney general, along the way becoming a popular Democrat in a deeply blue state. Her victory on November 8 made her the first lesbian to be elected governor of any state. Healey, who helped lead the legal battle against the federal Defense of Marriage Act and for marriage equality, also championed many legal challenges against Trump administration policies.

Appearing on MSNBC's Alex Wagner show December 13, Healey said, "I probably would not be here today were it not for that case [challenging DOMA] and what it taught me about the importance of government and law, and making sure the right people are in places to stand up and fight for people."

Kotek was declared the winner of Oregon's gubernatorial race November 10, winning by more than four percentage points.

Jared Polis, the nation's first openly gay male governor, won reelection to the Colorado governor's office November 8, meaning three of the nation's 50 governors will be openly LGBTQ in 2023. Bisexual Kate Brown, the outgoing governor of Oregon, was the nation's first openly LGBTQ governor, finishing out a term of a previous governor and then winning election herself in 2016.

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced in December that she was leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent. Photo: Courtesy AP  

Number 5: Republicans win the House; Democrats the Senate
Republicans won a nine-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm elections, and Democrats retained the Senate. Initially, Democrats could claim 49 Democrats and two independents caucusing with the Democrats for the upcoming new session, for a total of 51. But in what many considered a surprise move, bisexual Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona) announced December 8 that she was leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent.

"I've registered as an Arizona independent," Sinema told CNN. "I've never fit neatly into any party box. I've never really tried. I don't want to." Sinema made her announcement after Georgia Democratic incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock won his runoff against Republican Herschel Walker for a full six-year term.

Sinema becomes one of three independent members of the Senate and has indicated she expects to caucus with Democrats.

While Democrats will continue to hold the power in the Senate, Republicans will now take over leadership in the House in January. Among the 222 Republicans in the House will be George Santos, a gay man and investor who beat a gay Democrat to represent the Congressional district covering Queens and Long Island, New York. Santos acknowledged attending the rally prior to the January 6 insurrection riot. Santos has said he would support marriage equality but also would support the current "Don't Say Gay" legislation pending in Congress. The New York Times recently reported on discrepancies in Santos' resume.

The Times also reported that Santos attended a gala in New York City December 10, one that attracted white nationalists and far right activists. Meanwhile, Republicans appear to be splintering over such things as who will be their leader. Congressmember Kevin McCarthy (R-California) is seeking to become speaker. To do that, a candidate must win more than half of all 435 votes in the House (or 218). With only 222 Republicans in the chamber, any Republican candidate for speaker must win support from all but four Republicans. Political observers have suggested voting might go on for a prolonged and contentious period of time before the next session's Republican leaders emerge.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Photo: Courtesy CNN  

Number 4: 'Don't Say Gay' and anti-LGBTQ bills abound
Likely Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, encouraged and signed into law a bill that severely curtails teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. Copycat "Don't Say Gay" bills sprung up around the country, including Republicans in Congress who introduced a similar bill in the House.

This was part of a nationwide barrage of anti-LGBTQ legislation and governors' directives. DeSantis took another dramatic step in December, bypassing the Republican-controlled Legislature to issue an order to block gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors. In May, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the governor's order to direct child welfare workers to report any instances of gender-confirming health care for children. Arizona passed a bill to prohibit transition surgery for young people and to ban transgender girls from participating in girls' sports. Alabama passed a bill to make it a felony to offer gender-affirming health care to transgender people under the age of 19. Other states followed suit, filing similar legislation, much of which is now pending for the 2023 session.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson told a U.S. House hearing in December that the "onslaught" of anti-LGBTQ bills in 2022 totaled at least 344 bills in 23 states.

"More than 25 of these bills were ultimately enacted across 13 states —17 of which have a disproportionate or targeted impact on transgender people," she said.

Five people were killed in a shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy Club Q  

Number 3: Escalation in physical violence
A 22-year-old in November shot and killed five patrons of Club Q, a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub. The alleged shooter, identified as Anderson Lee Aldrich, also injured at least 17 others in the shooting spree on November 19. Aldrich opened fire with a rapid-fire military assault-style weapon until a U.S. military veteran who was a patron at the bar knocked the gunman down and, with the help of one of the club's performers, subdued Aldrich.

A November 30 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned of potential additional attacks on LGBTQ bars. It noted that, after the Club Q shooting, the DHS observed messages "on forums known to post racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist content praising the alleged [Club Q] attacker."

Club Q had operated in conservative Colorado Springs for 21 years without any threats or attacks. Aldrich has been charged with 305 counts, including first-degree murder. Aldrich is being held without bond.

The Club Q attack, which took place just minutes before midnight and the start of observances marking Transgender Day of Remembrance, brought back many memories, including the 2016 attack on Pulse, an LGBTQ bar in Orlando, Florida. There, lone gunman Omar Mateen killed 49 patrons and injured more than 50 more. He was killed in a shootout with police.

Some news reports focused on the fact that Club Q was featuring a drag show. They noted that right-wing political activists have in recent months made concerted efforts to publicly malign drag queens and revive an old scare tactic that claims LGBTQ people are a threat to children. A Human Rights Campaign report in November indicated at least 32 people had been killed thus far in 2022 because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sixty-five percent of those victims were Black transgender women.

Pride Day events in several cities were attacked, including gun threats in Idaho, which forced the cancellation of a celebration. In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, police arrested 31 men in their 20s in June in connection with a plot by the white nationalist group Pride Front. Reports said the police found the group waiting in a U-Haul, carrying metal pipes and wearing riot gear, with a plan on how to disrupt the family-friendly LGBTQ festival there. The Washington Post quoted a researcher as saying that groups that attack LGBTQ events tend to be "far-right extremists, who he said adhere to a hypermasculine worldview and the belief that other, often marginalized groups, are making gains at their direct expense."

In June, reported members of the right-wing Proud Boys barged into a Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library in San Lorenzo, California, hijacking the event and intimidating attendees.

In December, the Human Rights Campaign issued a report showing a "highly organized attack" was being waged against more than two-dozen hospitals that provided gender-affirming care. But the organization also released a report in November, showing that a record number of cities across the nation (120) earned its highest score (100) for having pro-LGBTQ laws, policies, and services in place. The study, done with the Equality Federation Institute, looked at more than 500 cities. Some of the expected perfect scores included Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland in California; Wilton Manors, Florida; Ann Arbor and Detroit in Michigan; Atlanta; Chicago; Boston; Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio in Texas; Trenton, New Jersey; and New York City.

Among the unexpected cities scoring 100 were: Birmingham, Alabama; Juneau, Alaska; and Columbus, Ohio. And five cities which scored the absolute worst — zero — were: Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Florence, Alabama; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Pierre, South Dakota; and Rock Springs, Wyoming.

President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on December 13. Photo: Courtesy the White House  

Number 2: Enactment of the Respect for Marriage Act
President Biden on December 13 signed into law a federal bill to repeal the now-defunct Defense of Marriage Act and to require states to recognize any marriage, including same-sex and interracial marriages, licensed by another state.

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), a longtime ally to the LGBTQ community, introduced the legislation to the House in July, and it passed the House right away on a 267-157 bipartisan vote. It was after the midterm elections that it finally started moving in the Senate, where it was shepherded by lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin). There, it passed 61-36, also a bipartisan vote. The Times gave credit to Ken Mehlman, a gay man who was former President George W. Bush's campaign manager, and a group of other Republicans, for lobbying GOP senators to secure the 11 GOP votes they needed to pass a procedural hurdle to take a vote on the measure.

"It involved flooding the phone lines of Republican senators with calls from constituents who favored the same-sex marriage measure," reported the Times, "presenting them with polling that showed that voters were more likely to support a proponent of the bill than somebody who opposed it, and a public pressure campaign aimed at demonstrating widespread conservative support for the legislation." Twelve Republicans were among the 61 senators who voted yes for the bill.

The Washington Post gave much of the credit to Baldwin, who worked with her colleagues, including Republican Senator Susan Collins (Maine) to round up GOP support for the bill.

The Respect for Marriage Act originated in 2009 but was refurbished by Nadler this year after U.S. Supreme Court conservatives made clear many of them were eager to revisit the landmark Obergefell decision in 2015 that had struck down state bans on same-sex marriage.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization has alarmed LGBTQ legal experts. Photo: Collection of the U.S. Supreme Court  

Number 1: Roe overturned; marriage equality targeted
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 24 that the Constitution "does not prohibit" states from banning abortion. On the face of things, one might not immediately see why LGBTQ people were deeply alarmed by the decision. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas made sure that everyone knew that, with the court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the hour-glass was being turned over for same-sex marriage and relationships. Oddly, Thomas said he agreed with a statement in the majority decision (written by Justice Samuel Alito) that "nothing in [the Dobbs opinion] should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion."

"For that reason, in future cases," wrote Thomas, "we should reconsider all of this Court's substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell." Lawrence struck down state bans against same-sex sexual relations; Obergefell struck state bans against marriage for same-sex couples; and Griswold struck bans against couples using contraceptives.

Jennifer Pizer, chief legal officer for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, called the 6-3 conservative majority "the most shockingly activist court we have seen in any of our lifetimes." The majority opinion in Dobbs overturned two major precedents: Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The 1973 Roe decision said the Constitution implies that citizens have a right to privacy and liberty and that those rights cover the right to choose an abortion. The 1992 Planned Parenthood decision said states could regulate abortion once a fetus becomes viable as long as the regulations did not create an undue burden to women who seek an abortion.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights "on the chopping block" and that "we must turn to our local, state, and federal representatives to secure fundamental freedoms through legislation."

"We are witnessing a full-scale assault on the rights of women and LGBTQ people," said Minter, "and the moment to act is now."


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