A queer guide to the 2016 US presidential election

With the primary season in full swing and the US presidential election to be held next year, what can we expect when it comes to queer politics?

Cover image: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Some background

The US holds presidential elections on the first Tuesday of November, every four years. With President Barack Obama termed out of office next year, the 2016 race is wide open.

Unlike Australia, American presidential contenders are not decided by sitting members of their own party. Instead they are chosen through a series of contests known as ‘primaries’ or ‘caucuses’. In these events, which are scattered throughout next year, voters who identify with either of the major political parties are able to cast a ballot for their favourite candidate. The first of these contests is in Iowa in February, with the small state of New Hampshire following soon after.

There are a number of very big players contending this year’s race. For the Democrats, the nomination looks likely to be going to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Left-winger Bernie Sanders is presenting strong competition, but is unlikely to gain enough support to win the nomination.

The Republican race is much wider. The Republican nomination drew a massive 17 initial candidates, though that number has now dropped down to 14. Among those that are left, real estate mogul Donald Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former governor of Florida Jeb Bush and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have the potential to earn the nomination.

In a post-marriage equality election, a major rift shines through

Whether it was George W. Bush pushing constitutional amendments in 2004, or Barack Obama changing his position on the issue in 2012, elections in the past decades have been dominated by the question of marriage equality. With the Supreme Court deciding the issue this year, the question is where to next?

LGBT advocacy groups are attempting to use the momentum from the Supreme Court decision to push for what has become known as the “Equality Act”. Introduced in July, this act would amend the Civil Rights Act to establish "explicit, permanent protections against discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity in matters of employment, housing, access to public places, federal funding, credit, education and jury service”.

Others within the LGBT community have aimed to shift their attention to different issues. In particular, the win on marriage has lead to an increasing focus on the fight for transgender rights, with a number of wins already occurring at a federal and state level.

Yet, this momentum has also been met with significant resistance. Many conservative politicians have reacted strongly against the Supreme Court decision and there have been local moves against trans rights in particular.

The Supreme Court decision has created a hardening of positions on both sides of the debates. New national fault lines have appeared, ones that are already influencing the 2016 debate.

Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images
A hardening in the right

Recent months have seen a significant hardening by conservatives against lesbian, gay and trans rights. To win a presidential nomination, Republicans often rely on hard-right evangelical Christian support. These voters seem to be increasingly anti-queer, pushing nominees further and further to the right.

For example, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called the Supreme Court marriage decision “judicial tyranny”, arguing he would disobey the ruling if elected president. Huckabee was joined by Senator Ted Cruz at a rally in support the Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis — the woman who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In another example, last month voters in the city of Houston rejected a policy that protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and 13 other factors. The legislation went down after opponents used the slogan “no men in women’s bathrooms” — conflating transgender issues with community fears about sex offenders.

We can expect this sort of rhetoric to continue well into next year, the question remains how long it will last? It is generally accepted that, whoever the nominee, they will have to shift to the centre after they have won over Republican voters. This would likely result in a toning-down of anti-gay rhetoric. However, the Republican nomination process this year seems more volatile than ever and, in turn, it's more likely to produce a hard-right candidate. This might suggest their nominee is unlikely move to the centre, making LGBT issues a theme throughout next year.

Photo: AAP.
She’s talking the talk, but can we trust Hillary?

What about the other side of the aisle? What can we expect of the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton?

Clinton has a relatively chequered past when it comes to gay, lesbian and trans rights. When in the White House, for example, her husband Bill Clinton signed the Defence of Marriage Act, effectively banning same-sex marriage. During her campaign for the 2008 presidential election, she remained defiant in her opposition to marriage equality.

Much of this has changed. In the lead-up the Supreme Court decision, Clinton was one of the loudest supporters of reform and she has spoken publicly in favour of the Equality Act, trans rights, and the Houston Equality Bill that went down in November. In fact, over the course of her campaign Clinton has outlined a significant number of pro-LGBT policies, ranging from capping out-of-pocket expenses for people living with HIV/AIDS to “standing up” against anti-gay school policies. Clinton has also made gender issues a significant part of her election campaign, in particular defending Planned Parenthood against ongoing Republican attacks.

While we would be right to be skeptical of all of this, what seems different this time - and from any other presidential campaign in history - is the prominence Clinton is giving these issues. These are not just side issues for Clinton, but instead form a core part of her election campaign. This highlights the significant shift in the public mood over the past decade; one in which a candidate such as Clinton can express these views without fear of losing. This makes it much easier to hold her to account if elected, ensuring she follows through with her promises.

2016: the year of the queer?

There is probably no US election in recent history where the difference between Democratic and Republican candidates on gender and sexuality has been so stark. Certain fault lines have been created, ones that are not going to be closed over the course of the campaign.

Whether for better or for worse, how Americans vote in November next year will therefore have a big impact on international queer politics.