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The decade in LGBTQ: Pop culture visibility but stalled political progress

The world can see us in more ways than ever before, but the world is a frightening place at the moment.
Image:  Queerness has seen victories in pop culture with faces like Jonathan Van Ness and RuPaul but politically it's been a much tougher fight than people realize.
As we head into the next decade, it’s important to continue to analyze who we are, how we survive and how we thrive.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Decades are imperfect framing devices. Cultural and political movements are fluid bodies, nearly impossible to hold without something slipping through our fingers. But the approach of 2020 does offer us a chance to reflect on the highs and the lows of the past 10 years, and for the LGBTQ community, there was no shortage of either. Bookended by two very different presidencies and defined in part by the rise of social media, the 2010s offered a chaotic, harrowing but often humorous (a trademark of the community) portrait of queer life.

The 2010s offered a chaotic, harrowing, but often humorous (a trademark of the community) portrait of queer life.

What that picture reveals is an era in which, culturally speaking, LGBTQ people became more visible than ever, while the community stalled politically under adverse conditions at the federal level. A rising tide of hate violence, fueled by hostility against marginalized communities, only made the situation bleaker. The world can see us in more ways than ever before, and the world is a frightening place at the moment.

Mainstream LGBTQ activism in the early 2010s was marked by a slow, steady increase in support for same-sex marriage following the devastating Proposition 8 defeat in California. Eighteen nations, including the United States in its landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, would legalize same-sex marriage. President Barack Obama, who formerly opposed equal marriage, signed it into law during Pride Month that year, on June 26. Following the victory, “Love Wins” became a popular slogan.

But the push for same-sex marriage exposed fault lines in the broader LGBTQ community; these tensions would only become more pointed as the decade hummed along. Transgender activist Jennicet Gutiérrez being booed at the White House for interrupting Obama’s marriage Pride Month speech in an attempt to raise awareness for detained trans immigrants encapsulates the battles that were to come. This was the predictable result of a movement that still primarily benefited cisgender, predominantly white gay men.

The Black Lives Matter Movement that entered the public consciousness following the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in 2014 also deeply impacted the LGBTQ consciousness. Co-founded by Black queer women, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, Black LGBTQ activists also agitated around racism within the LGBTQ community. Of particular concern was the violence experienced by Black trans women, a deadly crisis that demanded better practices from law enforcement, journalists and even mainstream LGBTQ organizations that had previously mobilized for marriage equality.

On the other side of the coin was the notion of trans visibility and representation, perhaps best illustrated by Time magazine’s now iconic, though vigorously debated, “Transgender Tipping Point” cover story in 2014 featuring prominent trans actress Laverne Cox. Following on her heels was prominent athlete (now reality television star) Caitlyn Jenner coming out as trans on the cover of Vanity Fair. The former spouse of Kris Jenner (of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” fame,) Jenner’s highly public transition process invited awareness and backlash in roughly equal measure, as well as, unsurprisingly, a reality TV show.

The beginning of the alarming Trump era would be foreshadowed by a shocking tragedy: In June 2016, the Pulse nightclub shooting would take place in a predominantly Latinx gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people would lose their lives. The need to address the identity intersections of this tragedy helped push the term “Latinx” a gender-neutral form of “Latino,” into the mainstream consciousness,

Rising awareness in gender neutral terms would mark the 2010s. Merriam-Webster agrees, as it named “they,” a gender neutral pronoun popularized by nonbinary people, its word of the year.

Rising awareness in gender neutral terms would mark the 2010s. Merriam-Webster agrees, as it named “they,” a gender neutral pronoun popularized by nonbinary people, its word of the year.

But following Pulse, more acts of violence were on the horizon, spurred by internet radicalization and increasingly nationalist, xenophobic rhetoric. Trump, who would go on to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the electoral college in November, has only fanned these flames. While not specifically anti-LGBTQ in nature, the deadly 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, would crystallize the stakes for marginalized communities across the country and punctuate the crisis of hate violence that was saturating conversations between the political right and left in the U.S.

For LGBTQ people, the early Trump years are perhaps best defined by the transgender military ban, a policy the president announced via Twitter. Pushback was swift and centered trans service members. While this provided another spotlight for trans issues and trans voices, it of course offered yet another avenue for transphobia at both the cultural and legislative levels, as well as amplifying anti-trans voices.

Culturally, the decade was a bit less gloomy. A prominent example was “The Babadook,” a horror film protagonist who became an unexpected gay icon in 2017. The film, which had nothing to do with LGBTQ culture, was reappropriated through Tumblr and Twitter memes and eventually featured in both Pride parades and protest marches.

Indeed, social media intimately impacted the LGBTQ community in the 2010s. Many queer individuals have long taken advantage of the internet’s ability to provide a more anonymous channel for connection. But this desire for shared interests coalesced this decade into a burst of new LGBTQ media outlets, such as Grindr’s INTO, Conde Nast’s them., and the community-funded Autostraddle (founded in 2009). The boom reflected both the decade’s online media bubble and the broader push for media outlets run by and for the increasingly powerful LGBTQ community. (Unfortunately, the bubble burst, and INTO collapsed in January.)

The good news is that trans and nonbinary representation in media and fashion are growing, as evidenced by the success of breakout hits such as “Drag Race” and HBO’s “Euphoria.” Meanwhile on the political front, we are slowly seeing some progress as well. Love him or utterly loathe him, Pete Buttigieg, a gay man, is running for president alongside front runners Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

The LGBTQ community in America is nuanced and complex. As we head into the next decade, it’s important to continue to analyze who we are, how we survive and how we thrive. The word “queer” itself, for example, has only recently been reappropriated from its use as a slur. Who knows what could be next? The trend could continue: We will continue to crop up in more and more spaces where we’ve historically been excluded. If that will be enough to see us through remains to be seen.

More from our decade reflections project:

THINKing about 2010-2019: Where we started, how we grew and where we might go

A decade of Black Lives Matter gives us a new understanding of Black liberation

How our phones became our whole lives in just 10 years

College in the U.S. is at a crossroads. Will it increase social mobility or class stratification?

The success of the 'me too' movement took a decade of work, not just a hashtag

Egg freezing and IVF in the 2010s brought us the next phase in women's lib

How Netflix, Star Wars and Marvel redefined Hollywood — and how we experience movies

Drugs won the War on Drugs

These women of pop music defied the expectations of a decade and an industry

Climate change became a burning issue in the 2010s, but also an opportunity

Good-looking people with terrible ideas: The decade in celebrity health hogwash

White Christian America ended in the 2010s