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The Challenges and Opportunities for LGBT Rights

Williams Institute’s Samuels points to how research is key to informing LGBT issues

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The Williams Institute estimates that about 1.4 million American adults now identify as transgender—with 150,000 13–17 year olds identifying as such. Samuels speculated that increased social acceptance of LGBT people might be why younger people are coming out more than previous generations.

Jocelyn Samuels spoke at Northwestern about the challenges and opportunities for LGBT rights.

More than 14 million people—roughly 4.5 percent of the U.S. population—identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). For Jocelyn Samuels, executive director of the Williams Institute, the figure underscores why LGBT topics and policies are more than niche issues.

Samuels delivered the first joint distinguished public policy lecture held by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) on February 20 at Northwestern University in Evanston. 

She took up leadership of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that conducts social science and legal research on LGBT issues and policymaking, after serving as the director for the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from July 2014 to January 2017.

In this role, her “groundbreaking work” protected LGBT individuals by prohibiting discrimination based on sex stereotyping and gender identity, said Brian Mustanski, ISGMH Director, professor of medical social sciences, and an IPR associate. 

“She’s a perfect example of what can happen at the nexus of policymaking and research,” said IPR Director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor, to the nearly 100 attendees. “Her work on LGBT equality provides IPR and ISGMH a great opportunity to bring us together in dialogue about vitally important issues in the LGBT community and how research can inform these issues.” 

Advancing LGBT Rights

The Williams Institute estimates that about 1.4 million American adults now identify as transgender—with 150,000 13–17 year olds identifying as such. Samuels speculated that increased social acceptance of LGBT people might be why younger people are coming out more than previous generations.

She highlighted a series of LGBT policy advancements prior to the current administration, including the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011, allowing LGBT military personnel to serve openly, and the expansion of protections in the federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Most notably, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples had the right to marry. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the amicus brief filed by a scholar at the Williams Institute, detailing how children of same-sex couples are just as well adjusted as children of opposite sex couples.

The decision had an “immediate effect,” Samuels said. The numbers of married same-sex couples nationwide jumped from 230,000 in 2013 to 390,000 following the decision in 2015. By December 2017, that number reached 591,000. 

Despite these advances and greater social acceptance, many in the LGBT population still experience disproportionate economic and social disparities. In a Williams Institute analysis across several states, LGBT people were more likely to have a lower annual income, lack money for food or healthcare, and be unemployed. They were also more likely to experience health problems, suffering from more mental health and substance abuse issues than their heterosexual peers.

Redefining Sex Discrimination in Healthcare

Samuels herself had a hands-on role in one key policy shift while serving in HHS’ Office for Civil Rights.

Samuels Lecture
From left: ISGMH Director Brian Mustanski, IPR Director
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Jocelyn Samuels, and 
ISMGH Associate Director Francesca Gaiba

As the Obama administration crafted the Affordable Care Act, Samuels spearheaded enforcement of Section 1557 of the law, which prohibited various forms of discrimination—race, nationality, disability, and age, and, for the first time, sex—in federally funded healthcare. The regulations implemented for Section 1557 that were issued under Samuels’ leadership defined sex discrimination to include discrimination based on sex stereotyping and gender identity.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are forms of sex stereotyping because they are based on stereotypical notions of who your romantic partner should be, how you should appear, what kinds of mannerisms you should have,” Samuels said. 

She said the department extended the definition of sex discrimination because of “extraordinary evidence” that LGBT people were experiencing high rates of discrimination in the healthcare system. 

“The regulations that she created represented a groundbreaking development for LGBT equality,” Mustanski said. 

Challenges for LGBT Rights

Despite advances in LGBT rights and policy, major hurdles still confront the LGBT community.

“There is currently no federal law that bars employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Samuels said. A majority of states also lack protection for sexual orientation and gender identity.

She also pointed to how the current administration has been working to undo certain LGBT-friendly policies, including banning an estimated 150,000 transgender people from military service. Another proposed policy may seek to define gender as being determined by one’s genitalia at birth, and some groups are trying to chip away at the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.  

When it comes to addressing LGBT health and policy issues, research can have an impact, Samuels said. She pointed to Massachusetts, where a group tried to repeal a law that allowed transgender people to use public restrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identity.

Opponents of the law claimed that sexual assaults would increase if transgender individuals were allowed to use the restroom that corresponded to their identity rather than to their gender at birth.

Williams Institute research showed that there was no evidence that the law resulted in any increase in assaults in bathrooms or locker rooms, Samuels said. “I think this [finding] sort of broke the back of the bathroom bill movement.”

Evidence-based policy is key in advancing LGBT rights, according to Samuels.

“There is a lot of policy work that can and should be done to improve the rights and health and wellbeing of the LGBT community,” she said. 

Jocelyn Samuels is executive director of the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy in UCLA’s School of Law. She is also the Roberta A. Conroy Scholar of Law.

Photos by Eileen Moloney. 

Published: March 4, 2019.