2016 Legislative Session In Review: How We Moved Forward and Pushed Back in Statehouses Nationwide

By Adam Polaski • May 27, 2016 • 1:24 pm

It’s been an intense session for legislation involving discrimination of LGBT Americans – hundreds of bills were introduced, many to secure full LGBT protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations – and many others seeking to roll back existing protections and further codify discrimination against LGBT people.

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Less than one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that brought the freedom to marry nationwide, nearly all of the bills that sought to desperately chip away at the LGBT movement’s gains have been defeated, withdrawn, rejected, or left to languish without a vote. And in response to the four anti-LGBT bills that did advance, the LGBT community saw more vocal, sustained, and intentional support than perhaps ever before. An unprecedented number of businesses condemned the laws; public figures including politicians, musicians, filmmakers, actors, and authors voiced their opposition to any discrimination; and a new generation of activists took up the charge of augmenting understanding of who gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are.

As legislative sessions draw to a close in the many states that met in the winter and spring of 2016, Freedom for All Americans reflects on where our national movement for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination advanced, where we pushed back, and where we’ve laid the groundwork for deeper understanding of LGBT lives – and why non-discrimination protections are so critical. Take a look at our interactive map demonstrating the breadth of activity our movement faced in this first half of the year – and read five key takeaways below:

1) Affirmative LGBT Non-Discrimination Legislation Made Gains in 7 States

In a legislative session where opponents of LGBT equality bombarded state houses with some of the most egregious attacks we’ve seen in years, we also saw unprecedented momentum in many states, with proactive comprehensive non-discrimination bills advancing for the first time – or farther than ever before – in seven states.

In Massachusetts, the state Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of bringing full non-discrimination protections to transgender Bay Staters, the only state working toward transgender-specific public accommodations protections this year. The bill, which advocates have been working on for nearly a decade, now heads to the House on June 1. Freedom for All Americans has been proud to work alongside our partners this year with Freedom Massachusetts, the campaign to pass the transgender protections bill. 

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Florida made history with its first-ever hearing on the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, during which LGBT people and businesses across the state spoke out for these basic protections. Hearings were also held in Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Virginia – with the latter three advancing through committee and, in Virginia’s case, through an entire chamber. While lawmakers continued to delay on bringing non-discrimination protections in Indiana, the state saw significant debate on why this legislation is so important, a mark of momentum and important groundwork laid for future pushes forward.

2) More than 100 Anti-LGBT Bills Were Defeated in 20+ States

Opponents of LGBT non-discrimination worked on overdrive this year, filing bills allowing for anti-LGBT discrimination in many forms. Almost all of the anti-LGBT bills filed have already been defeated this year, and voices throughout the country are aggressively making the case for repeal of the 4 terrible bills that did become law (see #3). No matter what sort of legislation was proposed this year, our movement was there to fight back – here are some highlights:

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Big Vetoes:

Governors in Georgia, Virginia, and South Dakota rightly vetoed discriminatory legislation that came before their desks, with Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal rejecting the broad religious refusal bill HB757 following concerns from the NFL, major film and TV studios, business stakeholders, and nearly 1 million Georgians who spoke out with Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, the coalition Freedom for All Americans was proud to partner on with Georgia Equality and others. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe also took action against a broad “License to Discriminate” bill targeting LGBT people. And in South Dakota, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed – and the Republican-led legislature voted against attempts to override the veto – a bill that would have prohibited transgender students from using the restroom that aligned with their gender identity. As the anti-transgender bill in South Dakota picked up momentum, Freedom for All Americans leapt into action with the ACLU of South Dakota, Lambda Legal, the ACLU and other state and national partners to create national pressure that led to Governor Daugaard’s veto.

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Bipartisan Votes:

Fueling the increasingly understood idea that discrimination is not a conservative value, many Republican leaders voted against divisive anti-LGBT bills this year. In Missouri, where we directed massive constituent contacts alongside PROMO and the ACLU of Missouri, several GOP leaders spoke movingly about the dangers and disrespect posed by SJR-39, which would have placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot allowing for businesses to use religion as a reason to refuse services to LGBT people. In West Virginia, we celebrated with our friends at Fairness West Virginia as a 7-27 vote killed HB4012, a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” And in Wisconsin, where we stood with Fair Wisconsin in the fight against a bill denying basic dignity to transgender students, conservative lawmakers opted not to advance the bill out of committee.

Advocacy Campaigns:

Statewide coalitions formed in many states served as key mechanisms for channeling energy and action into the defeat of anti-LGBT bills. Freedom Indiana led the charge in Indiana against attempts to pass a “Super RFRA” and to leave transgender Hoosiers, some of the state’s most vulnerable community members, out of crucial non-discrimination protections. The Fairness Campaign and several groups in South Carolina successfully rallied and fought against anti-transgender and anti-LGBT bills in Kentucky and South Carolina, respectively. And in Washington, where several discriminatory bills advanced but were ultimately defeated, a broad new coalition has formed to ensure that attempts to roll back protections for transgender people do not advance to the ballot – and to send the message that Washington Won’t Discriminate.

Business Coalitions:

One of the most significant and compelling forces against anti-LGBT legislation this year came from the business community, which sounded off loudly. From Paypal pulling hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment in a planned expansion in North Carolina, to the leadership of Georgia strongholds like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, to a Marriott representative testifying at a hearing on West Virginia’s RFRA, to MasterCard and Monsanto condemning SJR-39 in Missouri, thousands of businesses large and small called for an end to these attacks. Indiana Competes, Georgia Prospers, and Missouri Competes were coalitions specifically formed by business leaders and chambers of commerce to combat anti-LGBT attacks – and, significantly, to call for affirmative LGBT protections statewide.

Education on Transgender Americans:

In state after state, the movement took advantage of every opportunity to expand public education and understanding of who transgender people are – and why legislation designed to target or silence the community is wrong. In Tennessee, the Tennessee Equality Project and the ACLU of TN helped communicate stories of transgender children who would have faced discrimination if the state’s anti-transgender restroom ban passed. And South Dakota’s Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed the anti-transgender bill just a few days after meeting with transgender students for the first time.

In the national fight against HB2 in North Carolina, Freedom for All Americans launched a TV ad highlighting the story of Zeke Christopoulos, a transgender man discriminated against by HB2. Watch the ad – which garnered more than a half million views – here.

3) National Outrage and Calls for Repeal Erupted Following Passage of Anti-LGBT Laws in 4 States

Four anti-LGBT bills did pass this year: 1) A broad religious refusal bill (HB1523) in Mississippi allowing individuals and businesses to cite religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against same-sex couples, transgender people, and unmarried people who have sex; 2) North Carolina’s HB2, which knocks down existing local protections and forbids future passage of LGBT protections in cities and towns, and additionally prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms in line with their gender identity; 3) A bill in Tennessee (HB1840) allowing counselors to refuse to provide mental health care services to anyone who violates their “sincerely held religious beliefs” – including beliefs about LGBT people; and 4) KansasSB175, which allows campus religious groups to discriminate and refuse LGBT students and faculty members from participating.

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These bills were met with unprecedented outrage from across the country. Businesses pulled investment in the states, the entertainment industry moved scheduled projects, entertainers canceled concerts and appearances, and lawsuits were filed to bring a halt to the rampant discrimination. These anti-LGBT laws in many ways galvanized the country, crystallizing the reality that discrimination against the LGBT community is still very real and very dangerous – and very much in need of correction.

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4) 19 States Fuel Conversation Around LGBT Non-Discrimination with Affirmative Legislation

Even as anti-LGBT attacks were introduced and shepherded through state legislatures, legislative leaders also stood up for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections. From Alaska to Mississippi, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, from Idaho to Ohio, lawmakers and advocates know that it is so important to continue pushing ahead on securing full non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

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No one should be fired, denied housing, or refused service because of who they are or who they love – and that’s what so many of these bills sought to ensure (see red icons on the map above). With important groundwork laid this year, legislators will surely be back to make the case for the LGBT community again in 2017’s legislative session.

5) Executive Orders Signaled Growing Momentum for Statewide Non-Discrimination in 4 States

Governors in several states, recognizing the importance of rejecting anti-LGBT discrimination, issued executive orders protecting state employees, and in some cases, employees of state contractors, from employment discrimination. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued an order in April, expanding existing protections in the state, and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards restored an LGBT-inclusive executive order in April, too, taking a big step forward for the Southern state. This fall in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order expanded protections from discrimination based on gender identity.

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Even Republican North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, in his narrow attempt to recover from the turmoil he brought to his state by signing HB2 into law, issued an executive order granting, for the first time in NC, employment protections for LGBT state employees. This executive order, of course, did nothing to fix the egregious attacks of HB2 (in fact, the order doubled down on some of the worst elements of the law) – but if HB2 is struck down by one of the many lawsuits challenging its constitutionality, this executive order will protect LGBT state employees.

While executive orders like these represent steps forward, it remains urgently important for each state – and indeed all 33 states without full non-discrimination protections for LGBT Americans – to establish state statutes outlawing anti-LGBT discrimination and working toward laws that ensure no one faces discrimination because of who they are or who they love.


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