It was an extraordinary year by all accounts. By late March of 2020, memes and sentiments flooded social media. It was the year folks wanted to forget or jump past to 2021 for a fresh start as health and economic concerns bore down. Through the pandemic, the uprisings over police brutality against Black people and systemic racism in the country, and a hyper-conservative judge taking Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place on the Supreme Court, there was innovation, resilience (something LGBTQ+ people know a thing about), and a few bright lights. Leslie Jordan and Schitt’s Creek kept us laughing while Pete Buttigieg made history. Some folks learned all about the mother of sourdough and others became experts at the art of the virtual meeting. Here are the events that shaped the year that changed life as we know it.
This story appeared in the November/December issue of The Advocate.
The Supreme Court lost a pillar of civil rights with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, an advocate for the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized populations, died September 18 at age 87 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
She was a civil rights attorney, a federal judge, and a Supreme Court justice. President Bill Clinton named her to the Supreme Court in 1993, making her only the second woman justice. One of four reliable liberals on the high court, she joined in all of its pro-LGBTQ+ rulings during her tenure. These included decisions establishing marriage equality, striking down antisodomy laws, and finding that a civil rights law against sex discrimination also covers anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. She wrote a strong dissent in the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, which went in favor of baker Jack Phillips, who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs. “Phillips declined to make a cake he found offensive where the offensiveness of the product was determined solely by the identity of the customer requesting it,” she wrote.
Ginsburg also became a pop-culture icon, famously dubbed the “Notorious RBG.” She had expressed hope that her successor would be chosen by a new president, not Donald Trump, but he moved forward with a conservative nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed by the Senate.
One big step forward on LGBTQ+ rights, several steps back.
The court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County in June was truly a landmark. It ruled 6-3 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in banning sex discrimination in the workplace, also banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s first appointee to the court, wrote for the majority. Although a huge win, the decision does not mean that anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination is illegal in other areas such as housing and public accommodations.
The court ruled for religious exemptions from antidiscrimination law in another case, when it held that the law does not apply to teachers at religious schools if instruction in religion is part of their jobs. In a separate ruling the same day, the court approved an exemption for religious employers seeking to deny birth control coverage in workers’ insurance, which could open the door to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, particularly around trans health coverage.
Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas said in October that they believe the court’s 2015 marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, should be overturned.
After Broadway shuttered, Rosie O’Donnell launched a mega-fundraiser to benefit the Actors Fund. Dozens of luminaries joined O’Donnell for a 3.5-hour reboot of The Rosie O’Donnell Show featuring the likes of Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, Neil Patrick Harris, and Billy Porter. The event raked in more than $600,000 for out-of-work theater workers.
Soon after, Schitt’s Creek star Emily Hampshire kicked off a weekly variety show from her apartment titled Humpday With Hampshire, proceeds of which also went to the Actors Fund. In April, Broadway’s finest reconvened for Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, benefiting Artists Striving to End Poverty. Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald performed a boozy virtual rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Pride also went virtual. The annual Pride Live Stonewall Day event (sponsored by our parent company, Pride Media) featured Taylor Swift, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Demi Lovato, Nico Tortorella, Ellen DeGeneres, and dozens more who helped raise money for nonprofits benefiting transgender folks.
Leslie Jordan, the 65-year-old gay actor, became internet famous posting videos showing the despair and comedy of living in quarantine.
He now boasts 5.4 million followers. But queer audiences have always adored Jordan for his unabashed embrace of femininity mixed with Southern charm. He has never been closeted in his Hollywood career, which began in the ’80s and has since seen him accrue over 120 credits including as Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace and Sid in The Cool Kids. Now he’s gone global with his IG “pillow talk.” His newest project, Call Me Kat, an upcoming Fox series, also stars Mayim Bialik and is set in a cat café.
Kamala Harris, a longtime LGBTQ+ ally, made history in 2020 as the first Black woman and first woman of South Asian descent to be on a national presidential ticket, when Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden chose her as his running mate. She is the daughter of two immigrants, her mother from India and her father from Jamaica.
In 2010, one of the signature issues in her campaign for California attorney general was her opposition to Proposition 8, the voter-approved ballot initiative that revoked marriage equality in the state in 2008. Prop. 8 was eventually struck down in court, and Harris’s refusal to defend it was key. As AG, she led efforts to abolish gay and trans “panic” defenses in criminal trials. As San Francisco district attorney, she established a hate-crimes unit. She has championed pro-LGBTQ+ legislation including the Equality Act, which she and Biden have said they would make a priority in the first 100 days of their administration.
In the works for some time and long overdue, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences crafted bold and necessary new rules to ensure increased diversity among Oscar nominees. New requirements for Best Picture eligibility will assure that people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, and those with cognitive or physical disabilities will be represented on the screen and behind the camera.
Netflix’s documentary series Tiger King became an obsession as the larger-than-life, mulleted, big cat owner/country singer/gay polygamist Joe Exotic built an empire with his Oklahoma roadside zoo only to burn it to the ground.
Exotic, in prison for a failed plot to kill animal rights activist Carole Baskin, is no role model, but Tiger King’s cultural impact is undeniable. His current husband has discussed sex positions with Andy Cohen, and Baskin sashayed to “Eye of the Tiger” on Dancing With the Stars, which was promptly followed by a commercial from her dead husband’s family asking for information on his mysterious disappearance. Saff Saffery, a trans trainer who lost an arm to a tiger, was a fan favorite. A dramatized version of Tiger King starring Nicolas Cage and Kate McKinnon is reportedly on the way.
Overcoming lockdown and a #MeToo scandal, RuPaul’s Drag Race had one of its strongest seasons ever, drawing record viewership to VH1 and winning the show a slew of new Emmys. RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars was equally riveting as the franchise crowned one of its strongest competitors, Shea Couleé, in addition to shining a new spotlight on fan favorites Jujubee, Miz Cracker, Blair St. Clair, Derrick Barry, India Ferrah, Mariah, Mayhem Miller, Alexis Mateo, and Ongina.
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Canada’s Drag Race, and Drag Race Holland (and the original overseas expansion, Drag Race Thailand) have been enormously entertaining and enlightening about the international art of drag
In December 2019, J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter universe, defended a woman fired for transphobic tweets.
Rowling became more explicitly transphobic herself as her tirade continued throughout 2020, further aligning her with TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), much to the chagrin of the franchise’s legions of LGBTQ+ fans.
The summer of 2020 was marked by numerous Black Lives Matter protests, with strong LGBTQ+ participation, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others at the hands of police.
In lieu of Pride celebrations, many of which were postponed or canceled due to the pandemic, LGBTQ+ Americans marched for Black lives in numerous cities. An All Black Lives Matter march took place in Los Angeles in June, with participants emphasizing that LGBTQ+ people are often victims of violence from police and others, and calling for police reform, racial equality, and LGBTQ+ equality. They also stressed the epidemic of violence against Black transgender women.
Canadian series Schitt’s Creek swept the Comedy category at this year’s Emmy Awards. With genuine, hilarious performances from Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Dan Levy (far left), and Annie Murphy, the story of the wealthy Roses, who move to a small town after losing their fortune and learn how to be a family, was a source of comfort for its ever-growing audience over six seasons.
In particular, the love story between David Rose (Dan Levy) and Patrick Brewer (Noah Reid), ending with a wedding that will be included in Top TV Weddings lists for years to come, gave viewers hope that same-sex relationships can be as celebrated and commonplace as any other. After years of going largely unrecognized by the Television Academy, Schitt’s Creek was finally honored with nine Emmy Awards, which the cast and crew celebrated remotely in a socially distanced, mask-wearing virtual ceremony. Accepting the Emmy for Best Comedy Series, Dan Levy praised “the transformational effects of love and acceptance, and that is something that we need more of now than we ever needed before.”
The gay politician Pete Buttigieg made history running for president.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., won the most delegates in Iowa’s 2020 presidential caucus, making him the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community to win any state’s caucus or primary. Buttigieg finished a close second to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the New Hampshire primary before he withdrew from the race in March.
It wasn’t an easy road for Buttigieg, who weathered homophobia during his campaign. The candidate also received criticism from some on the left who thought him too moderate, too beholden to wealthy donors, and perhaps not gay enough. He also failed to catch on with Black voters, having had difficulties with Black constituents in South Bend. But his run was historic nonetheless. “Pete’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency is a revolution in American politics,” said Elliot Imse, senior director of communications at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which had endorsed Buttigieg.
While in lockdown, Netflix gave us fascinating glimpses into past queer life. The 1968 doc The Queen transports viewers to the then-underground world of competitive drag. I Am Divine (2013) details the punk-drag icon’s (left) yearning to simply be a respected actor. Circus of Books tells how an average straight couple with kids ended up becoming one of the nation’s largest distributors of gay porn. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is the tragic but inspiring tale of the queer and trans rights trailblazer; A Secret Love is a charming story of enduring lesbian love; Disclosure is about trans representation in Hollywood; and Mucho Mucho Amor documents the last days of Latinx TV legend and queer icon Walter Mercado.
In July, Warner Media, which produces The Ellen DeGeneres Show, launched an internal investigation into allegations of a toxic workplace. Reports included that crew members had not been contacted for more than a month regarding their status as the pandemic settled in and DeGeneres began working remotely.
A BuzzFeed story painted a damning picture of pre-pandemic workplace culture with allegations of “racist comments, actions, and microagressions,” and the firing of an employee for creating a GoFundMe page to cover medical costs the company wouldn’t.
DeGeneres addressed the controversies in the opening monologue of the show’s September return: “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously, and I want to say I am so sorry to the people that were affected.”
Monica Roberts was 58 when she died in October, marking a huge loss for the LGBTQ+ community and journalism. The Black transgender activist and Houston native founded TransGriot 15 years ago. The blog was an essential source for coverage of the lives — and sadly, the many deaths — of transgender people.
Trans identities are often erased by law enforcement and the media alike, and Roberts’s reporting pushed back against and challenged this deadnaming. Her numerous awards include the Susan J. Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement at Creating Change, the Human Rights Campaign’s John Walzel Equality Award, and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Blog.
Roberts was a founder of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition and organized Louisville’s Transsistahs-Transbrothas Conference in 2005 and 2006.
HRC President Alphonso David paid tribute to Roberts’s contributions: “For decades, Monica has been a fierce leader — bringing light to the injustice transgender people face, especially Black transgender women. She leaves behind a strong, and vital legacy — one that every LGBTQ person and ally should work to honor and advance.”
Andrea Jenkins, the Minneapolis City Council vice president, is one of the first out trans people of color elected to office in the United States. In the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, the City Council declared racism a public health emergency. At a press conference, Jenkins said, “We feel as if there was a knee on all of our collective necks, a knee that says Black life does not matter. I am a part of this system to help to take that knee off of our necks. And that is the work that I will be doing.” After singing “Amazing Grace” to honor Floyd, she added, “Until we name this virus, this disease that has infected America for the past 400 years, we will never, ever resolve this issue.”
Jenkins is now focused on legislation to reduce racial profiling and police violence, and is working with other members of the City Council on a plan that could dismantle the police department in Minneapolis and replace it with a department of community safety and violence prevention. She also works as a historian with the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota and cohosts its podcast about trans people remaking the world, Transcripts.
This year has been the deadliest for transgender Americans since activists and media outlets began tracking reported trans homicides. In the first 10 months of the year, 33 trans people died by violence in the U.S., surpassing 2017’s full-year record of 31, and by the end of the year, the total had risen to 44. In any given year, the actual number is likely far higher, given that many trans people are misgendered and deadnamed by media and police or their deaths not reported at all. The majority of 2020’s victims were Black and Latinx women. As Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, now president-elect, called the rash of homicides “an epidemic that needs national leadership.” In an October statement, he said, “These deaths don’t exist within a vacuum. Dehumanizing government actions and rhetoric as well as a failure to address risk factors like domestic and intimate partner violence, underemployment and unemployment and poverty, housing insecurity, and health disparities, put this community at risk.”
Indeed, an untold number of trans people have died in this epidemic due to those increased risks and health disparities.
This year saw the loss of three gay giants in worlds of theater and activism: Mart Crowley (above left), Larry Kramer (right), and Terrence McNally (center).
McNally passed at 81 of the novel coronavirus. The four-time Tony Award-winner wrote many pioneering plays, including The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and Love! Valour! Compassion!, which told the heartfelt story of a circle of gay men friends grappling with the AIDS epidemic. Kramer, who died at 84, was the playwright of the Tony-winning The Normal Heart, a fictionalized account of Kramer’s early AIDS activism as he cofounded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. The Normal Heart was later adapted into an acclaimed HBO movie by Ryan Murphy. Murphy also helped bring Crowley, who also died at 84, to a new generation with the Netflix adaptation of The Boys in the Band, which centered on a gay dinner party and societal stigma. A 2018 Broadway revival with the same all-gay cast won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play.
Trailblazing lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon, an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights since the 1950s, died April 9 at age 95 at her home in San Francisco. Lyon and her longtime partner, Del Martin, helped found the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian political and social organization in the nation, in 1955. The following year they began publishing The Ladder, a monthly magazine for lesbians. They fought for an antidiscrimination ordinance in San Francisco and the decriminalization of homosexuality throughout California. They sued for marriage equality in the case that resulted in the California Supreme Court striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2008, and they were one of the two first same-sex couples to marry as soon as that ruling went into effect. Martin died a month and a half later, with Lyon at her side.
Randall Kenan, one of the most lauded Black gay writers in the nation, died in August at his home in North Carolina at age 57. His works included the award-winning 1992 short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, and he had just published another collection of short fiction, If I Had Two Wings. He was a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and had also taught at Duke University.
Aimee Stephens’s case resulted in the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in June that the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on sex discrimination also applied to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but she did not live to see the decision. Stephens, a transgender funeral director in Michigan, died May 12 at age 59 at her Detroit-area home. She had suffered from diabetes complications and had been receiving treatment for kidney failure. Her employer, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, fired her after she informed her supervisors she would be presenting as female at work.
Kious Kelly, an assistant nurse manager at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai West, was only 48 when he passed; he had asthma but was otherwise healthy. A lack of personal protective equipment, like masks and gowns, may have contributed to Kelly’s COVID-19 infection.
Kelly grew up in Lansing, Mich. He moved to New York City over 20 years ago with the dream of becoming a dancer before turning to a career in health.
Kelly is one of countless LGBTQ+ workers who have put their lives on the line to save others.
Roy Horn (on right), one-half of the illusionist duo Siegfried & Roy, died in May in Las Vegas of COVID-19 complications at age 75. He and his partner in life and work, Siegfried Fischbacher, were popular Vegas entertainers, but their performing career ended when Horn was mauled by a white tiger onstage in 2003. After the incident, they focused on conservation and caring for their animals.
Naya Rivera, who played the groundbreaking lesbian character Santana Lopez on Glee, tragically drowned while vacationing in July. She was 33. Her character’s romance with and eventual marriage to fellow show choir member Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris) was beloved and inspirational.
Harry Britt, the gay man who succeeded Harvey Milk on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after Milk’s assassination in 1979, died in June at age 82. He remained on the board until 1993 and was an activist for numerous progressive causes. He almost became a U.S. congressman, but narrowly lost a special election in 1987 to Nancy Pelosi.
Film director, writer, and producer Joel Schumacher, known for directing Batman Forever, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, and more, died June 22 at age 80. He also wrote the screenplays for Car Wash and The Wiz. Schumacher was cagey about being gay until he gave a wide-ranging interview about his life to Vulture in 2019.
Henry van Ameringen, a gay man who donated millions of dollars to LGBTQ+ and HIV organizations, died September 9 at age 90.
Ash Christian, an award-winning gay actor, producer, and director, died at age 35 while vacationing in Mexico in August. His production company released the acclaimed AIDS drama 1985 and Hurricane Bianca, a 2016 film starring RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio. He appeared in numerous TV series, winning a Daytime Emmy in 2014 for his program ml Promise.
Lorena Borjas, a longtime transgender activist in New York City, died of COVID-19 in March at age 60. An immigrant from Mexico, she became an advocate for New York’s transgender population, opening her small Queens apartment to them, housing as many as 20 at a time.
Silvio Horta, 45, the gay creator of Ugly Betty, died January 7 in Miami, apparently by suicide. The sitcom, which ran on ABC from 2006 to 2010, featured queer characters including Betty’s colleague Marc St. James, played by gay actor Michael Urie.
Justin Flippen, the gay man and longtime activist who was mayor of the heavily LGBTQ+ city of Wilton Manors, Fla., died in February at age 41, of an apparent heart attack.
Lynn Shelton, a bisexual woman who directed four of the eight episodes of the popular and inclusive miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, died in May of a blood disorder at age 54. She had also directed queer-themed movies such as Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, and Sword of Trust.
Camila María Concepción, a writer on the Netflix show Gentefied and a trans activist, died in February by suicide. She was 28. She was also a staff writer on Netflix’s zombie comedy-drama series Daybreak.
Nonbinary and autistic blogger Mel Baggs died April 11 in Burlington, Vt., at age 39. Baggs wrote extensively about life as a person with nonverbal autism and dealt with the subject in a short film, In My Language.
Lady Red Couture, a staple of the Los Angeles drag community, died in July due to complications from a chronic illness. Lady Red was cohost of the long-running interview show Hey Qween.
Melina Rayna Svanhild Farley-Barratt, a transgender woman who was running for Florida Senate, died of cancer October 14. She was only the second trans candidate to qualify for the ballot for a Florida legislative race.
David Carter, a gay historian who wrote the definitive book on the Stonewall riots, died in May at age 67, apparently of a heart attack. His book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution came out in 2004 and became the basis for the documentary Stonewall Uprising.
Deborah Batts, the first lesbian federal judge in the U.S., died in February at age 72. She was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Bill Clinton in 1994. She retired in 2012.