Guest Opinion: How legal attacks on LGBTQ+ rights affect mental health

  • by Tate Barkley
  • Wednesday December 6, 2023
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Tate Barkley. Photo: Courtesy Tate Barkley
Tate Barkley. Photo: Courtesy Tate Barkley

While significant strides have been made over the last two decades in recognizing and protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, challenges persist. The United States continues to witness the weaponization of public policy against the LGBTQ+ community, and this assault has had a negative impact on many members' mental health.

New U.S. House leadership

The recent election of Representative Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) as speaker of the House of Representatives has put his values and past experiences in the spotlight. Prior to his election to public office in 2015, Johnson was an attorney and spokesperson for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian right legal advocacy group that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group. Data for Progress reports that during his time there, Johnson was a vocal opponent of legalizing same-sex marriage and he defended the ability of states to criminalize gay sex. Johnson also provided legal advice to an organization called Exodus International, a leader in the so-called ex-gay movement, which aimed to make gay individuals straight through conversion therapy programs using religious and counseling methods. As recently as July 2023, in a hearing in the House of Representatives, Johnson said, "A parent has no right to sexually transition a young child." He baselessly described transgender health care as "abuse" and "physical harm," and said, "No parent has a constitutional right to injure their children." In an interview Johnson defended his positions on the LGBTQ+ community, suggesting that anyone who disagrees with his views should "Go pick up a Bible."

The presidential candidates

In addition to the current House leadership, the 2024 presidential race on the Republican side is shaping up to be a pivotal one for LGBTQ+ rights according to an analysis conducted by the Human Rights Campaign.

The frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, has been hostile to the LGBTQ+ community for years and frequently used his presidency to harm the community. Some of his most notable attacks include: rescinding Title IX regulations protecting transgender students, banning trans military members from actively serving, permitting discrimination against LGBTQ+ couples in adoption, and opposing basic non-discrimination protections, including the Equality Act.

Following Trump in the latest polls is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has made LGBTQ+ people political pawns in his own quest for power. He spearheaded the state's "Don't Say LGBTQ+" bill that prevents youth from having safe, inclusive classrooms and bars them from receiving comprehensive education. He has also pushed forward legislation banning gender-affirming care and censoring the art of drag.

The remaining major GOP candidates, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, have all demonstrated their support for the anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.

The conservative Supreme Court and extremism

The anti-LGBTQ+ agenda is driven by extremist groups like the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom, among others, that have a history of working to oppress the existence and rights of LGBTQ+ people. It is public knowledge that several of the conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices have connections to these groups. In June 2022, when the court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade ending the constitutional right to an abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurring opinion suggesting that the court reconsider past cases involving similar legal claims, including cases involving same-sex intimacy and marriage equality.

Hardline anti-LGBTQ+ groups have often promoted their discriminatory laws and policies under the guise of religion, blurring the lines between the separation of church and state and discarding anti-discrimination civil rights policies. These blurred lines were evident in the same Supreme Court session when, in a 6-3 vote, the conservative justices held that Colorado cannot enforce a state anti-discrimination law against a Christian website designer who does not want to create wedding websites for same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her First Amendment right to free speech.

The effects on LGBTQ+ mental health

It is crucial to acknowledge the effect this climate has on mental health in the LGBTQ+ community. Studies consistently show that LGBTQ+ individuals experience higher rates of mental health issues compared to the general population. Factors such as discrimination, rejection, and internalized stigma contribute to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Accessing culturally competent mental health care remains a challenge for many individuals. Some mental health professionals lack understanding of the unique experiences and needs of the community. Factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and disability intersect with sexual orientation and gender identity, influencing the experiences of mental health disparities within the community, often creating barriers to seeking help.

The path forward

To address this crisis we need a multifaceted approach. First, increasing education and awareness about LGBTQ+ issues can help combat stigma and discrimination. This includes educating legal professionals, mental health practitioners, and the general public about the challenges faced by the community and the importance of creating inclusive environments, also considering the diverse experiences within the community.

Secondly, legal advocacy is a cornerstone in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and mental health. Continued efforts to challenge discriminatory laws, promote inclusive policies, and advocate for the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community are essential for creating lasting change. Finally, it is imperative that the LGBTQ+ community put its full support behind candidates committed to fighting this extremist agenda. By addressing both legal and mental health aspects, we move closer to a more equitable and compassionate society for the LGBTQ+ community.

Tate Barkley is a practicing attorney, speaker, author, and educator. He lives in Houston with his husband of six years, Anson, and their dog, Emerson.
For more information, including about ordering his book, "Sunday Dinners, Moonshine, and Men," visit

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