Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The answer is yes, at both city and state levels—but they may move in different directions.
While politicians might decry efforts to politicize the massacre in Orlando, Florida, government could not fail to take action after such a horrific tragedy. Chris Murphy, Democratic Senator from Connecticut, led Senate Dems in a 15-hour filibuster Wednesday to secure votes on two amendments that would expand background checks and prevent terror suspects from buying firearms.
Local and state governments sprang into action, too. The Jackson City Council in Jackson, Mississippi, expanded citywide non-discrimination protections to include gender identity and sexual orientation. The unanimous vote means that gay, lesbian, queer, non-binary, transgender, and other individuals cannot be subject to discrimination in housing, employment, and public services. The new ordinance also adds gender identity to the hate-crime code in Jackson.
Jackson’s is the first LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in Mississippi, which was one of 32 states that still lack such protections. Mississippi is also one of 20 states without hate-crime laws that protect gender identity and sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Even after the massacre in Orlando, it’s hardly clear that any of those states will budge on sexual orientation and gender-identity protections. In fact, on Wednesday, a Kansas lawmaker threatened to put forward a North Carolina–style bathroom bill dictating which bathrooms transgender students can use if Democrats in the state legislature try to amend an unrelated school-funding bill. But the politics surrounding recent anti-LGBT legislation may be changed irrevocably by the tragedy.
Of course, a Republican state representative in Kansas might not see any intersection between the massacre in Orlando and a bill restricting transgender students’ access to bathrooms. That’s because Republicans have been unwilling to acknowledge that the Orlando shooter specifically targeted the gay community. Texas Republican House Representative Pete Sessions refused to even acknowledge that Pulse, the site of the shooting, was a gay club.
Conservative recalcitrance may be less heartlessness and more calculation. Their reluctance to recognize the Orlando massacre as a hate crime—and their complementary insistence on declaring the attack an act of radical Islamic terrorism, despite a lack of evidence of links between the shooter and ISIS, Hezbollah, or al-Nusra Front—is important for two reasons.
First, however clinical it sounds, the political salience and visibility of the gay community may have shifted as a result of this tragedy. In the weeks and months leading up to the shooting in Orlando, more than 200 bills were introduced in state and local government restricting the rights of LGBT individuals. Even after the Orlando shooting, the U.S. House of Representatives blocked an amendment preventing sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination in federal contracting. But as stories of love, compassion, heroism, grief, and community circulate, introducing new audiences to the plight of the gay community in America, these efforts may sink in popularity. After Orlando, another transgender bathroom bill may seem like piling on.
Second, the aftermath of the Orlando shootings may yet transform the politics of preemption. Over the past year, cities moving to secure rights and recognition for their LGBT residents have run the serious risk of state preemption. In March, North Carolina’s state legislature passed a law preempting local governments from designing their own anti-discrimination ordinances after Charlotte passed one in February. By charging forward with such an ordinance, Jackson ostensibly risks retaliation from the Mississippi state legislature. But preempting cities on LGBT rights now comes with some potential political downsides for state lawmakers.
The outpouring of love and sympathy following the attack in Orlando isn’t likely to turn social-conservative Republicans into allies any time soon. Their refusal to see the victims of the Pulse shootings as queer proves that much. “Religious liberty” is still bound to be a major plank of the platform that the Republican Party will adopt next month. But the idea that transgender people represent a nationwide threat to straight bathroom-goers may now be exposed for the anti-LGBT bullying maneuver that it always was. After Orlando, anti-gay sentiment seems unlikely to win culture-war traction in the run-up to the November election.
And even if conservative state lawmakers and governors insist on anti-LGBT legislation, the market won’t stand for it. PayPal is just one of the companies withdrawing its business from North Carolina over House Bill 2. Angie’s List, American Airlines, and other businesses condemned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, a bill that has cost the state $60 million in revenue, according to one study.
Stronger protections from hate crimes are critical to the gay community. For example, in Indiana, a state with no hate-crime laws, the Associated Press found that 52 percent of Indiana law-enforcement agencies failed to file hate-crime reports to the FBI between 2009 and 2014. That’s one reason why the new bill in Jackson is so important: It boosts the status of future crimes against the gay community.
So far, other local governments have yet to politicize the Orlando tragedy, so to speak, in the same way Jackson has. At the federal level, Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Bob Casey is now supporting legislation that would ban people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from buying or selling firearms. The Hate Crime Prevention Act would represent significant new federal protections for LGBT people, and could bolster residents of Jackson and other municipalities with tough local restrictions against anti-LGBT hate crimes.
For most of the past year, the LGBT community has been subject to blistering attacks from conservative lawmakers. Orlando may have changed that political calculus. New laws affecting the LGBT community may even be acts by allies.