How the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights has shaped the 2010s

From the legalisation of same-sex marriage to the mainstream success of queer artists like Lil Nas X and Kim Petras, A LOT has changed. But how better off are we actually?

by Tom George
19 December 2019, 5:00pm

As your iPod nano gathers dust in the corner of your room somewhere, perhaps next to your Blackberry Bold, Silly Bandz and all the other relics of yesteryear, it’s easy to forget that 2010 was only 10 years ago. But there's more to progress than the relentless march of consumer technology – and this past decade has seen seismic cultural and social shifts, especially for the queer community.

It's hard to believe, but in 2010 same-sex marriage was only legal in seven countries. And in terms of representation, we only ever seemed to appear in movies as the comic, ever-single sidekick ready to give the protagonist her much needed makeover. At the time, the EU released guidelines laying out the ways in which the global LGBTQ+ community still needed support. They came up with three key aims: promoting decriminalisation, fighting for equality and non-discrimination, especially in the workplace, and protecting human rights activists.

So, almost 10 years on, how successfully have these goals been met? Well in truth, the majority of change in criminalisation laws happened in the 1900s. Landmark advances did happen in 2018 when India dismantled colonial era laws punishing homosexuality, and in 2019 when international outcry halted Brunei's attempt to end its moratorium on the death penalty for homosexual acts, but most countries across the world had already decriminalised homosexuality, with exceptions in Africa and the Middle East, and little changed this decade.

While decriminalisation wasn’t a big part of the decade, the fight for equality certainly was. Like dominos toppling down a queer rainbow, countries across the globe began to legalise same-sex marriage. As the 21st century entered its teen years, 22 countries, from Colombia to New Zealand to Northern Ireland just last month, made the change. As a community we also became far more visible with GLAAD reporting that 10.2% of series regular characters on TV in 2019 were LGBTQ+, the highest number yet. From Pose's transgender cast to movies like Moonlight, we've seen a huge upsurge in media which authentically depicts the queer experience.

While the concept of being fired for your gender or sexuality are beyond disgusting, in 2010 it was still very much legal. Can you believe that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the damaging Clinton-era legislation that kept queer people in the military closeted, only ended in 2011? But five years on, things weren't looking much better. Trump was elected and swiftly made repeated attempts to ban transgender people from the US military – one of over 100 anti-LGBTQ+ acts and statements he made within the first two years of his presidency, as reported by GLAAD. It's not all bad though. In other parts of the world, such as the UK, Mexico and Australia, anti-workplace discrimination laws did come into effect in 2010s, laws that the US and many other countries are still fighting for.

While LGBTQ+ rights and public perceptions of the community have undoubtedly come a long way in the past 10 years, we've also faced new and unprecedented challenges. Internet culture has allowed for queer people to find communities and safe spaces (particularly on Twitter and more recently TikTok), but it also has corners where cesspits of far-right extremist comments and memes can go unchecked, sometimes even nurtured. According to data collected by Gallop, queerphobia has increased among Gen Z with 1 in 4 Britons under the age of 24 believing the LGBTQ+ community is “immoral” or “dangerous”. That's even higher than the baby boomers.

It’s probably no surprise then that hate crimes in the UK have also increased in the same era, with attacks on trans people going up by 81% (and that’s just the ones that are reported). Just this summer a lesbian couple were attacked on a London bus after refusing to kiss for the gratification of cat-calling, straight men. “A large amount of hatred toward queer people still exists just below the surface. There’s a thin veneer of tolerance.” argues anthropologist Professor Sarah Franklin. “It’s difficult for LGBTQ+ people to feel truly safe, even in one of the most ‘gay-friendly’ cities in the world.”

This decade also saw the devastating mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 queer people. It was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history. In 2017, reports also started to emerge of purges against LGBTQ+ people in the Russian state of Chechnya, a fact the Chechen leader denied, making the odd claim that there were no gay people in the state for them to arrest.

Matt Horwood from the Albert Kennedy Trust also outlines a growing LGBTQ+ homelessness crisis in the UK. Twenty-four per cent of Britain’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ with 77% of those believing coming out to their parents was the main reason for their current situation. “Most of them have faced abuse and rejection at home or have had to flee hostile or dangerous environments such as exorcisms, conversion therapy or other forms of violence, things you would imagine don’t happen anymore” Matt tells me. The problem of homelessness and poverty in the community is similar in the US, where 34% of black transgender individuals live in extreme poverty (for black Americans as a whole, this figure comes to 9%). In other parts of the world such as Asia, fear of rejection, homelessness or worse, keeps queer individuals closeted. A 2014 study found that Asians are 4.4 times more likely than white people to press the “prefer not to say” option on questions regarding sexuality.

In the 2010s, we’ve achieved things we once perhaps never even conceived of. But things aren’t perfect and while much of the community has come a long way, a sizeable chunk hasn’t. So where do we go from here? What do the community and our allies need to focus on as we head into a new decade? “It’s all of our responsibility to step up as better, more active allies over the coming years,” says Matt. “We need to call out transphobia when we feel safe to do so and support trans activism”. This includes within the community itself: “LGBTQ+ spaces should feel safe for everybody in our community and their allies. It should not feel isolating and definitely should not tolerate any form of hate.”

If we don’t get better at checking queerphobia when we see it, holding our political leaders to account and fighting for all within the community we will continue to lose things we’ve spent 10 years working hard for. We owe it to those activists who came before us, and the ones who will come after we're gone.