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Biden Signs Most Far-Reaching Federal Protections For LGBTQ People Yet

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On his first day, President Biden issued an executive order to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Then this week, he lifted a ban on transgender individuals in the military. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports, LGBTQ advocates say the moves are transformational.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: President Joe Biden's executive order is the most far reaching of any federal protections so far.

TAYLOR CHANDLER WALKER: I can't even begin to tell you the relief that I felt.

FADEL: That's Taylor Chandler Walker. She's a transgender health coordinator. She says that she faced discrimination trying to find a primary health care provider near her home last year outside Washington, D.C.

CHANDLER WALKER: The feeling was that they knew they had the power of the Trump administration behind them to act the way they were acting instead of being all accommodating to people regardless of gender identity.

FADEL: The new executive order interprets last year's Supreme Court decision on employment discrimination, known as Bostock, more broadly. That decision found discrimination against LGBTQ people is sex discrimination. Biden's order interprets that to mean LGBTQ people are also protected in the areas of health care, housing and education. Omar Gonzalez-Pagan is a senior attorney at the civil rights group Lambda Legal. He says the executive order...

OMAR GONZALEZ-PAGAN: Adopts and augments some of the arguments that we have been making since the issuance of the decision by the Supreme Court last year, which is that any law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity...

FADEL: He says it's the opposite of what the Trump administration did. It actively worked to roll back protections, most notably for transgender people.

GONZALEZ-PAGAN: So it is truly a transformational approach. But it is an executive order, and we certainly want to see more permanent solutions put in place and - like the Equality Act because, as we know, a change in administration may mean a change in executive orders.

FADEL: The Equality Act would extend all federal civil rights laws to LGBTQ people through legislation rather than relying on the courts. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that Trump's administration aligned with, is criticizing the Biden executive order. Christiana Holcomb is legal counsel there.

CHRISTIANA HOLCOMB: This administration is attempting to stretch Bostock beyond its legal bounds and basically rewrite federal law by executive fiat, something that Congress has for decades declined to do.

FADEL: Among the arguments her organization is making is how the executive order extends to education, and that includes interscholastic sports.

HOLCOMB: So if we want to have a future where young women can continue to medal, to be on the podium, to be state champions, we must protect the female sex category.

FADEL: Civil rights advocates say this is fearmongering. Transgender youth face so much harassment, it makes it hard for them to even stay in school, let alone participate in sports. And among those who do, some are better athletes than others, just like everyone else. LGBTQ advocates call the sports argument the latest salvo to prevent equality.

KATHLEEN O'DONNELL: I feel like every time LGBT came up the last four years, it was always negative. It was really hard to see a light.

FADEL: That's Kathleen O'Donnell in Montana. She's faced both housing and employment discrimination because she's married to a woman.

O'DONNELL: Biden's only been there for a week (laughter) basically, and we are already seeing some positive come out of it. It just is - I mean, it's relieving is probably the best way to describe it.

FADEL: She hopes the executive order gives local LGBTQ advocates more tools to help them at the state level, where discriminatory bills often emerge. For instance, in her state of Montana, a bill that would restrict young transgender athletes is advancing in the state legislature.

Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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