LDF History

Defending LGBTQ+ Rights

Core to LDF’s mission and legacy as a leader in the fight for civil rights is our conviction that all people deserve to be treated with dignity—regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, ability, gender or sexuality. LDF puts this value into practice by defending the rights and dignity of Black people and other historically marginalized groups — including the LGBTQ+ community, which Black people also proudly belong to. Living up to our best values and realizing the highest ideals of our country means standing up for the civil rights of all people.

No one deserves to be discriminated against because of their identity, or to be targeted with erasure and suppression because of their lived experiences. And we have seen how hateful speech and laws intended to discriminate against marginalized communities often lead to hateful actions – including violence. Historically on the forefront of driving our society to reject this kind of discrimination, today LDF continues to leverage our voice and expertise to challenge laws and policies that promote the substandard treatment of any group of people. Pulling on our deep knowledge of this nation’s history, LDF also challenges efforts to deny equality and justice for members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

We are proud to work with and alongside diverse coalitions in demanding comprehensive civil rights for members of communities targeted with discriminatory policies and threats of violence because of who they are. In the courts, LDF has used its voice in defense of same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the rights of LGBTQ+ students in particular.

Today, there are renewed efforts to silence and censor the stories and lived experiences of Black people, people of color, women, and members of the LBGTQ+ community — and extremists have centered on passing policies that harm Black and LGBTQ+ children and families. We all must work together to fight attacks that affect the different communities with which we belong, and to safeguard the rights of all of us in this multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy.

This, too, is a fight for racial justice.

Cases

Protecting Transgender Students

G.G. Grimm v. Gloucester

Filed: 10/30/2017

In March 2017, LDF filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Gloucester County, Virginia, high school student named G.G., who seeks to be treated equally under the law and allowed to use the school restroom consistent with his gender identity. The brief lays out the painful but deeply relevant history of segregation in restrooms and other public accommodations and the ways in which this history is at risk of repeating itself. As the brief notes, “a key lesson of that painful and ignoble era is that while private space barriers like racially segregated bathrooms may have once seemed, to some, like minor inconveniences or insignificant sources of embarrassment, they were, instead, a profound indignity that inflicted deep and indelible harms on individuals of both races, and society at large.” LDF filed the brief together with Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg of the Columbia Law School Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic and the law firm of Stris & Maher LLP.

The brief carefully examines the ugly history of using unfounded fears about sexual contact and discomfort to justify segregation in bathrooms – as well as swimming pools and even the institution of marriage. The brief also highlights that arguments used to defend the discrimination against transgender individuals mirror the historical claims that the Court long ago determined with insufficient to justify racial discrimination and segregation. The proposition that G.G. should go back to using the ‘separate bathroom’ follows the same logic that the Court discarded along with “separate but equal.” LDF filed another amicus brief in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2019.

In August 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the bathroom ban implemented by Virginia’s Gloucester County School Board discriminated against transgender students and is unconstitutional. The majority and concurring opinions cited LDF’s amicus brief multiple times in drawing parallels between the bathroom policy for transgender students and past bathroom policies segregating people by race.

Adams v. St. Johns School Board, FL

Filed: 10/28/2019

In February 2019, LDF filed an amicus brief in support of Drew Adams, a transgender man who sued the St. Johns County, Florida, School Board when he was a student over its use of a discriminatory bathroom policy that prohibits Adams from using the boys’ bathroom. LDF’s brief explains how the School Board’s bathroom policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and how the school board’s justifications for the unlawful policy resemble discriminatory rationales used decades ago to discriminate against Black individuals, interracial couples, and members of the LGBTQ community.

LDF urged the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court decision that found the policy discriminatory and unconstitutional. LDF’s brief demonstrates how the bathroom policy adopted by the School Board of St. Johns County, Florida, is based on unjustified fear, prejudice, and false stereotypes about transgender students. 

In November 2021, LDF filed a second amicus brief detailing some of the similarities between exclusions of transgender kids and racial segregation, and explains the harm and stigma of being physically excluded from communal spaces.

"We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. These all too-familiar arguments—about sexual contact, predation, danger, and discomfort—remain both factually baseless and legally immaterial. Instead, the weight of precedent and the guarantee of equal protection inexorably support this Court in recognizing G.G.’s simple and inherent dignity by letting him use the boys’ bathroom with his peers."

- LDF's Amicus Brief in G.G. Grimm v. Gloucester

Cases

Criminal Justice

Filed: 6/30/2019

Rhines v. Young

In June 2019, LDF filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review Charles Rhines’ case because there is compelling evidence that at least some of the jurors sentenced him to death in part because he is gay. The brief argued that sexual orientation discrimination must be removed from the administration of justice, and that jury sentences infected by anti-gay bias – like the death sentence handed down in Rhines’ case – must not stand. Verdicts infected by anti-gay bias undermine the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection and an impartial jury as well as the Eighth Amendment’s protection against the arbitrary or discriminatory imposition of the death penalty. The brief also explained that the right to an impartial jury is a cornerstone of democracy, and that impartiality should extend to a defendant’s sexual orientation. LDF’s brief urged the Court to grant certiorari so that Rhines’ claim of anti-gay bias could be reviewed on its merits.

LDF’s brief argued that this principle articulated by the Court in Buck v. Davis, where the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Duane Buck’s death sentence because of the influence of racial bias, should apply in Rhines’ case. Several remarks by jurors invoked disturbing anti-gay stereotypes that show that contrary to the principle underscored in Buck, some jurors sentenced Rhines to death not because of what he did, but because of who he is.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Rhines’ case, despite the significant evidence of anti-gay bias in sentencing.

LGBTQ+ people of color are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and abusive treatment within the criminal legal system at nearly every stage. Combined with the racism that infects every aspect of the criminal legal system, LGBTQ+ people of color face pervasive anti-LGBTQ+ bias, discriminatory drug enforcement laws, HIV criminalization laws, inhumane treatment in prisons and jails, and harmful policing practices that increase their likelihood of being stopped, arrested, and incarcerated by police. LGBTQ+ people of color are also disproportionately impacted by police violence and brutality. At nearly every level, LGBTQ+ people of color are at an increased risk of having their lives criminalized.

Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People of Color

A Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project Report

Advocacy

LDF and Civil Rights Groups Urge Republican National Committee Chair to Shun “Values Voter Summit”

In 2014, LDF and a coalition of civil rights organizations sent an open letter to then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus calling for him to condemn and repudiate the Values Voter Summit for its sponsors’ virulent attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. Among the sponsors were the Family Research Council and American Family Association, both of which have engage in repeated, groundless demonization of LGBTQ+ people — portraying them as sick, vile, incestuous, violent, perverted, and a danger to the nation. Several Republican Party members, including some who were in office at the time, were scheduled to speak at the event.

LDF and Advocacy Organizations Call for End of Harassment and Bullying of LGBTQ+ Students

In 2015, LDF joined nearly 100 advocacy organizations in support of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, an amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act that would help protect LGBTQ+ students from harassment and bullying. LGBTQ+ students face pervasive discrimination, harassment, bullying, and violence in schools, depriving them of equal educational opportunities in public schools across the country. Federal statutory protections currently address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability, but statutory protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity are limited. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit public schools from discriminating against any student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Civil and Human Rights Community Condemns Rescission of Title IX Guidance Clarifying Protections for Transgender Students

In February 2017, the Trump administration rescinded critical protections for trans students under Title IX, an existing federal civil rights law that protects students from discrimination based on sex. LDF, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLSEN, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, and MALDEF all condemned the Trump administration’s decision to strip transgender students of protections against discrimination. Transgender students who face discrimination in schools have worse educational outcomes, and poorer psychological well-being than their cisgender peers. The recision of these protections leaves transgender students vulnerable to discrimination and harassment based on their gender identity.

LDF and Coalition call for North Carolina Legislators to Repeal H.B.2, an Anti-Trans bathroom bill

In April 2016, LDF joined the North Carolina Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement in calling for the repeal of North Carolina House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. H.B. 2 removes existing protections against discrimination for LGBTQ+ people, blocks localities from enacting anti-discrimination protections, cuts off avenues of relief for victims of employment discrimination, and forces transgender individuals to use the wrong restrooms in schools and other public buildings.

H.B. 2 would disproportionately impact Black transgender people who are particularly vulnerable to housing and employment discrimination based on both their gender identity and race. The law’s sponsors used an abhorrent false narrative that transgender people are sexually predatory and put women and girls at risk. Similar false narratives have been used to justify slavery, defend Jim Crow segregation, and uphold anti-miscegenation laws.

H.B. 2 was partially repealed in March 2017 and replaced with H.B. 142, which gave the legislature sole authority to regulate public bathrooms and instituted a moratorium on any new local protections or ordinances until 2020. H.B. 2 was fully repealed in December 2020 when the ban expired, and several localities voted to pass strong LGBTQ+ inclusive non-discrimination protections.

Cases

Pro-Truth

National Urban League v. Trump

Filed: 10/5/2020

In October 2020, LDF filed a lawsuit challenging then President Trump’s “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” (EO 13950) that prohibited speech, activities, and workplace trainings that address or promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. The EO applied to federal agencies, U.S. military institutions, grant recipients, and contractors. Federal funding was tied to compliance with the order, and the ahistorical belief system on which it was based. Former President Trump directed federal agencies to end trainings related to the discussion of inequality, critical race theory, topics related to gender and sexuality, or other forms of what he labeled “propaganda.” It went so far as to establish a McCarthy-esque hotline for people to report on the behavior of others. LDF’s lawsuit argued that the EO violated the guarantees of Free Speech, Equal Protection, and Due Process – fundamental rights secured in the United States Constitution.  

In December 2020, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California blocked implementation of the EO and granted a partial nationwide preliminary injunction enjoining the EO in the case Santa Cruz Lesbian and Gay Center v. Trump. The EO was revoked by the Biden Administration in January 2021.

Unfortunately, the EO became the blueprint for states to craft their own anti-truth laws. Many of the same vague “divisive concepts” banned in the Executive Order reappear in state legislation that seeks to suppress the history and voices of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.

Cases

Anti-LGBTQ+ Discrimination

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

Filed: 10/30/2017

In 2012, a gay couple sought to purchase a wedding cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop, owned by Jack Phillips. After Phillips refused on the grounds that his faith forbade him from providing cakes for same-sex weddings or celebrations, the couple filed a complaint with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the commission’s ruling that Phillips had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that he could not be forced to serve the couple against his First Amendment rights as both a Christian and a culinary “artist.”

LDF filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court outlining how the Masterpiece Cakeshop case poses a threat to all civil rights, not just marriage equality and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. The brief emphasized that equal treatment in public spaces has long been an essential part of equal citizenship for Black Americans and people of color.

The bakery’s arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop had troubling historical parallels to the way that religion was used to justify discrimination against Black Americans in the Jim Crow-era. In 1968, LDF litigated a landmark case in this area—Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises—which is factually and legally similar to Masterpiece CakeshopPiggie Park involved the owner of a barbeque chain, Maurice Bessinger, who refused to serve three Black customers at one of his restaurants in South Carolina. Bessinger alleged that his religious beliefs allowed him to circumvent Title II of the Civil Rights Act—which bars discrimination in public accommodations such as stores, hotels, and theaters—contending that serving Black customers would “contravene the will of God.” In Piggie Park, the Supreme Court unanimously held that Bessinger violated Title II—similar to Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—because an individual’s religious beliefs do not excuse discrimination.

In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed core anti-discrimination principles in public accommodations laws in its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, holding that business owners are not exempt from anti-discrimination laws because of their religious or philosophical beliefs. The Court’s decision relied heavily on the Piggie Park case litigated by LDF in 1968. The ruling maintained existing public accommodations law and leaves no room for business owners to discriminate on the basis of their philosophical or religious beliefs.

Doe v. Trump

Filed: 7/3/2018

In 2018, LDF filed an amicus brief challenging the U.S. government’s ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. The brief traces the history of the U.S. military’s racially discriminatory policies, explaining that the justifications the government is relying on to discriminate against transgender people are almost identical to the explanations used more than a half-century ago to discriminate against Black Americans. LDF’s brief notes that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that discriminatory classifications by the federal government violate the Constitution, and that the ban on transgender military service should therefore be struck down.

President Trump resurrected the ban on transgender military service in the summer of 2017. The Administration asserted that transgender troops would harm military readiness, undermine military effectiveness, and be disproportionately costly. The same justifications were found to be baseless just two years earlier when then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter commissioned a study to examine the ramifications of a ban. A similar study was commissioned by President Truman to study the impact of the military’s racial segregation. Even though they took place almost 60 years apart, their findings were remarkably similar: that these bigoted policies were indefensible and had cost lives and money. These studies led President Truman to sign an Executive Order integrating the military in 1948, and Secretary Carter to issue a directive ending the prohibition on transgender military service in 2016. In January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order reversing the ban.

Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia

Filed: 7/4/2019

In July 2019, LDF joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and 56 of the nation’s premier civil rights organizations as amici curiae in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and two companion cases, to urge the Court to recognize that the workplace anti-discrimination protections in Title VII apply to LGBTQ+ individuals. Enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII was designed to eliminate discrimination in employment. The systemic racial discrimination against Black Americans in the workplace was the initial impetus for the law, but it is well-established that Title VII protects against disparate treatment based on other characteristics including sex, national origin, and religion.

In a major win in the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County, holding that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This victory is particularly significant for LGBTQ+ persons of color who are most likely to face workplace discrimination on the basis of their gender identity and race.

In its decision, the Court relied upon Phillips v. Martin Marietta, a landmark 1971 case in which LDF successfully vindicated the employment rights of a woman who was denied a job because she had school-age children by an employer who routinely hired men with young children.

ANTI-LGBTQ+ Discrimination

Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers

LDF Applauds Decision of Washington Supreme Court in Favor of Same-Sex Couple Seeking Wedding Floral Arrangements

January 2009

ANTI-LGBTQ+ Discrimination

Gifford v. McCarthy

The petitioners’ farmland, as a public accommodation, discriminated against a couple because of their sexual orientation. The Court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the SDHR’s determination violated their right to freedom of speech. The Court concluded that the prohibition against compelled speech and the right to expressive association were not violated.

January 2016

ANTI-LGBTQ+ Discrimination

Karnoski v. Trump

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was considering the constitutionality of the Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals serving openly in the military.

Filed: July 2018

"Of course, the nature of discrimination against gays and lesbians differs fundamentally from de jure racial segregation, just as racial discrimination differs from discrimination based on sex and other suspect classifications to which heightened scrutiny applies.

But DOMA and other laws that purposefully infringe on the rights of gay people are analogous to the racial caste system effectuated under “separate but equal” in an important respect: they create and perpetuate a social hierarchy that is premised on the superiority of one group over another."

- LDF's Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Windsor

Cases

Marriage Equality

Perry v. Schwarzenegger and Hollingsworth v. Perry

Filed: 10/25/2010

In October 2010, LDF filed its first amicus brief in a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. LDF invoked the landmark interracial marriage case Loving v. Virginia in which LDF filed an amicus brief in 1967 to lay the legal groundwork for marriage equality. LDF argued that the principles set forth in Loving established the fundamental right of any individual, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, to marry the person of their choice, free from discrimination. 

In 2013, LDF joined a coalition of civil rights groups to submit another amicus brief in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the consolidated case challenging California’s Proposition 8 before the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief argued that the Court should apply heightened scrutiny to laws, such as Proposition 8, that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

In a major victory on June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. The Court upheld a lower court decision.

United States v. Windsor

Filed: 9/7/2012

LDF filed amicus briefs in United States v. Windsor that challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that denied marital benefits under federal law to LGBTQ+ couples while extending those benefits to hetereosexual couples. LDF filed its first amicus brief in the case when it was being heard by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2012. LDF’s second amicus brief urged the U.S. Supreme Court to strike DOMA because it intentionally relegated LGBTQ+ people to inferior social status.

The brief stated that DOMA and other laws that purposefully infringe on the rights of LGBTQ+ people are “analogous to the racial caste system effectuated under ‘separate but equal’ in an important respect: they create and perpetuate a social hierarchy that is premised on the superiority of one group over another … DOMA’s denial of marital benefits under federal law subordinates them within the institution of marriage. And like early laws that were designed to oppress Black Americans, DOMA relegates gay and lesbian people to an unequal and inferior status as a group.”

In a major victory, on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the federal government cannot discriminate against lesbian and gay couples who are legally married under state law by denying them federal benefits, including Social Security survivor benefits, immigration rights, and family leave.

Bostic v. Schaefer

Filed: 4/21/2014

In April 2014, LDF and the NAACP filed an amicus brief in Bostic v. Shaefer, a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that sought to overturn Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban. The brief invoked the principles set forth in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that struck down laws that prohibited interracial couples from marrying to set the legal basis for overturning Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. The brief made clear that Loving was not restricted to race: the freedom to marry has long been recognized as a fundamental right “essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.”

LDF’s brief argued that marriage discrimination violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, the same baseless and offensive accusations proffered by the proponents of Virginia’s marriage ban — that prohibitions on marriage equality are necessary to protect children — were also invoked by Virginia in 1967 in defense of its anti-miscegenation law.

Obergefell v. Hodges

Filed: 3/5/2015

In March 2015, LDF filed an amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that ultimately recognized marriage equality. The brief explained that the arguments advanced against marriage equality were the same as those that were raised – and rejected – by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. LDF’s brief also noted that because there is a long history of discrimination and exclusion against the LGBTQ+ community – similar to the history of discrimination against the Black community – state bans on same-sex marriage relegate gays and lesbians to an unequal and inferior status as a group.

LDF’s argument was central to the Court’s decision, which noted, that a “first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. This abiding connection between marriage and liberty is why Loving invalidated interracial marriage bans. . . .”

In a landmark victory in June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Constitution’s promise of equal protection requires states to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry.”

Marriage Equality

Strauss v. Horton

A lawsuit contending that Proposition 8, which bans marriage for same-sex couples, is not a valid initiative because it improperly attempts to undo the California Constitution’s core commitment to equality and deprives the courts of their essential constitutional role of protecting the rights of minorities.

Filed: January 2009

Marriage Equality

Conaway v. Deane

Nine same-sex couples in Maryland sued when they were denied marriage licenses, due to a Maryland law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Filed: October 2006

Marriage Equality

Hernandez v. Robles

Constitutional challenge to New York’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples

Filed: April 2006

"[LDF] was founded to battle racial discrimination in the courts. It also had no problem arguing that the struggle for marriage equality for same-sex couples is in line with the battle against the 'separate but equal' doctrine that blocked Blacks from pursuing the American dream."

- Johnathan Capehart

"A strong black voice for gay marriage" | Washington Post | March 2013

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