WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday condemned a wave of “cruel” and “callous” state laws curbing the rights, visibility and health care access of LGBTQ+ people, especially children, leaving them feeling under attack like never before and the White House with limited options to intervene.
“These are our kids. These are our neighbors. It’s cruel and it’s callous,” Biden said at a White House news conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “It matters a great deal how we treat everyone in this country.”
Biden commented hours after the White House postponed a large Pride Month celebration with thousands of guests Thursday night on the South Lawn because of poor air quality from hazardous air flowing in from Canadian wildfires.
The president noted steps he has taken to help protect the rights of non-heterosexual people, but said “our fight is far, far from over because we have some hysterical and, I would argue, prejudiced people who are engaged in all what you see going on around the country.”
He said what is happening in some states is an “unjustified and ugly” appeal to fear and called on lawmakers to pass legislation, which has been stalled in Congress, that would protect the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals.
“Congress must pass, must pass the Equality Act and send it to my desk,” Biden said of a legislative measure he had named a top priority during his 2020 campaign.
The president then spoke directly to LGBTQ+ Americans, especially children. “You’re loved, you’re heard and this administration has your back, and I mean it. We are not relenting one single second to make sure that they’re protected.”
Biden also described new initiatives the administration announced earlier Thursday to protect LGBTQ+ communities from attack, help young people in foster care, suffering with mental health or experiencing homelessness, and to counter book bans, though the effects may be limited.
Thousands of guests had been invited from around the country for an evening filled with food, games and other activities on the South Lawn. Queen HD the DJ was handling the music, and singer Betty Who was on tap to perform.
But the nation’s capital by late morning Thursday was under a “code purple” air quality alert, the fifth-highest level on the six-level U.S. air quality index, with authorities recommending that everyone limit their exposure to the hazardous smoke wafting south from Canada. District of Columbia schools canceled all outdoor activities for a second day Thursday, and the National Zoo also closed.
The White House initially resisted altering its plans for the celebration, even as the air quality steadily worsened along the East Coast on Wednesday and into Thursday.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer individuals, marked June’s Pride Month by declaring a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ individuals in the United States and releasing a guidebook outlining laws it deems discriminatory in each state.
The campaign said it acted in response to an “unprecedented and dangerous” spike in discriminatory laws sweeping statehouses this year, with more than 525 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced and more than 70 signed into law so far — more than double last year’s number.
Kelley Robinson, the campaign’s president, called for a “swift and powerful” response by people in power, including in government, business and education.
“This is a full-out crisis for our communities that demands a concerted response,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think this is kind of a national call to action and a call to arms to stand up and fight back.”
Biden, a Democrat, announced that the Department of Homeland Security, working with the Justice and Health and Human Services departments, will partner with LGBTQ+ community organizations to provide safety resources and training to help thwart violent attacks.
Separately, HHS and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide resources to help LGBTQ+ young people with mental health needs, support in foster care and homelessness.
To confront a spike in book bans, the Department of Education’s civil rights office will appoint a new coordinator to work with schools to address that threat. The White House said banning books erodes democracy, deprives students of material needed for learning and can contribute to the stigma and isolation that LGBTQ+ youth feel because books about them are often the ones that are prohibited.
Biden has many LGBTQ+ people serving in prominent positions throughout government, such as Karine Jean-Pierre, the first openly gay White House press secretary. He signed legislation to protect marriage equality and lifted a ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Polls show public support for the rights of people who are gay and lesbian has expanded dramatically over the last two decades, with about 7 in 10 U.S. adults in polling by Gallup saying that same-sex marriages should be legally valid and that gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable.
But attitudes toward transgender people are complex: In polls conducted in 2022 by KFF and the Washington Post and by the Pew Research Center, majorities said they support laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in areas such as housing, jobs and schools.
At the same time, both polls found that a majority of Americans think that whether someone is a man or a woman is determined by sex assigned at birth. Many also support restrictive policies aimed at people who are transgender, for example preventing transgender women and girls from participating in sports teams matching their gender identity, along with restrictions on access to certain medical treatments.
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson in Washington and Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.