This year promises to be an important one for LGBT communities. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to strike down same-sex marriage bans in the South, one of the last bastions of such legislation in the country. And a wave of change has swept through American pop culture. Lee Daniels’ black evening soap opera, “Empire,” focuses on the backstory and current struggles of Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), the gay son of music executive Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). At the 2015 Golden Globe Awards, the Amazon scripted series “Transparent” took home the prize for best television comedy. And just last year, a picture of actress Laverne Cox famously appeared on the cover of Time above the bold declaration that the United States has reached a “transgender tipping point.”
Of course this doesn’t mean that everything is great for LGBT folks. Underneath these headline-grabbing stories lay decades of systemic inequity that shape the lives of queer and transgender people of color. Here are five issues to follow in 2015:
Safety and violence. Will 2015 be any safer for transgender women of color than last year? Between June and December of 2014, at least 12 trans women of color were killed in brutal incidents that police are investigating as hate crimes. The slayings underscore the dangers that trans women of color face, even in cities that are supposedly LGBT-friendly. A 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that LGBT people of color were nearly twice as likely to experience physical violence than their white counterparts. Transgender women made up 67 percent of anti-LGBT homicides in 2013, according to the Anti-Violence Project.
Marriage equality. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, where roughly 60 percent of the country’s entire population live. As mentioned above, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals just heard oral arguments in three challenges to bans in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59 percent of African-Americans say they support same-sex marriage, which goes against the misconception that black communities are more homophobic than others.
LGBT youth homelessness. According to Jai Dulani, co-executive director of the New York City-based advocacy organization FIERCE, youth homelessness is a key issue for 2015. Queer youth make up an estimated 40 percent of homeless young people in the United States. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that roughly 550,000 people up to 24 years old are homeless over the course of a year. Racial inequity shapes who becomes homeless in this country: According to the Congressional Research Center, 32 percent of homeless youth are black, a number that’s more than double the proportion of black youth in the total population.
“Quality of life” laws. Once they’re on the street, queer youth face stiff punishment for often petty crimes. In most states, a minor running away from home is by itself considered a criminal offense. Police also use condom possession as evidence of prostitution for transgender women at higher rates than other groups. Roughly 300,000 gay and transgender youth are arrested or detained each year, of which more than 60 percent are black or Latino. While queer and transgender youth make up only 5 to 7 percent of the country’s overall youth population, they make up 13 to 15 percent of young people who are either detained or imprisoned.
Conversion therapy. The National Center for Lesbian Rights kicked off the new year by holding a Twitter townhall called #BornPerfect on the harmful effects of “conversion therapy,” a process designed to turn queer folks straight. These techniques which include hypnosis, electric shock therapy and inducing vomiting at the sight of homoerotic images. While they have been discredited by nearly every professional medical and psychological organization in the country, ultra-conservative groups like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality are thriving. Just recently TLC began airing “My Husband Is Not Gay,” a reality TV show that follows three men in heterosexual relationships who struggle with what they call “same-sex attraction.” But recipients of conversion therapy report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem, and the practice seems especially strong in deeply Christian communities that are prevalent in the South. Statistics that look at conversion therapy by race are hard to find, but advocates say that it is practiced among all races, especially in smaller rural towns.
“What we know about the South is that it’s the Bible Belt,” says Caitlin Breedlove, co-executive director of Southerners On New Ground, an LGBT rights group based in North Carolina. “We can’t say for sure that it’s a hotbed of conversion therapy, but we do deal with conservative churches that are particularly powerful.”