President Donald Trump said he would be different — the first Republican president to embrace LGBTQ people. He said the key acronym (“L, G, B, T … Q”) at the 2016 Republican convention. He held up a pride flag at a campaign event. He initially defended the right of Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, to use the bathroom that aligns with her gender identity. He tweeted, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
And hey, Trump is from liberal New York — so how anti-LGBTQ can he be, really?
Yet six months into his administration, Trump has repeatedly proven his LGBTQ-friendly attitude was a farce.
While Trump is arguably a small step up from past Republicans, he is still very much against even basic LGBTQ rights. On Wednesday, Trump announced he will reinstate a ban on trans military service. On that same day, his Department of Justice also filed a legal brief at a federal appeals court arguing that anti-gay discrimination is legal under federal law. Before that, his administration pulled back an Obama-era guidance that protected trans kids from discrimination in public schools, he appointed a Supreme Court justice who opposes LGBTQ rights, and he even failed to recognize Pride Month.
All of this comes at a pivotal time for LGBTQ rights. While the US has made enormous strides over the past few years toward LGBTQ equality, there are many issues LGBTQ Americans still face — from basic rights in the workplace to which bathrooms trans people are allowed to use. That’s why many advocates have emphasized that, while the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and legalization of same-sex marriage were big wins, they were supposed to be the beginning of a new era in equal rights.
Trump poses a threat to that new era. While LGBTQ rights haven’t been a big focus of his administration, what he has done has by and large pulled back the gains of the past several years — and he’s poised to do much more in the years to come.
Trump is a straight loss for LGBTQ rights so far
Let’s get the one bit of good news out of the way first: Trump did make one LGBTQ-friendly move early on in his administration when he decided to maintain workplace protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for federal employees and contractors. (Though it would have been unprecedented to pull back these protections — even President George W. Bush, a major opponent of LGBTQ rights, maintained President Bill Clinton’s executive order that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal workforce.)
Besides that, though, Trump has only provided loss after loss for LGBTQ rights.
Pence in particular is an unquestionable opponent of LGBTQ rights. In Congress, Pence rejected workplace protections for LGBTQ people and opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In 2006, he said that being gay is a choice, that preventing same-sex marriage is “God’s idea,” and that same-sex couples signaled a “societal collapse [that] was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.” And in 2015, he triggered a big battle over whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people when, as governor of Indiana, he signed a “religious freedom” law that critics feared could be used to justify discrimination.
In terms of policy, Trump and his administration have now taken several steps to pull back LGBTQ rights. Here are a few examples:
- The Trump administration rescinded transgender protections for kids in federally funded schools. Last year, the Obama administration signed a guidance that asked publicly funded K-12 schools to respect and protect trans students’ rights, including their ability to use the bathroom and locker room that align with their gender identity. The Trump administration quickly rescinded the guidance once in office, leaving trans students effectively unprotected by the federal government.
- Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, who has already ruled against LGBTQ rights. Although Gorsuch had a vague record on LGBTQ rights when he was nominated, civil rights advocates argued that, based on some of his past writings on marriage equality and religious issues, Gorsuch could be a big opponent for LGBTQ equality. In just a few months on the bench, Gorsuch has proven advocates right: For one, he dissented against a Supreme Court ruling that requires states to list same-sex parents on birth certificates.
- Trump said he would reinstate a ban on transgender military service. Trump tweeted that he would ban trans military service because “[o]ur military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming … victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” (One big catch: The US Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly told the military to wait for more official guidance, instead of a few tweets, before it re-implements the ban.) There is no basis for Trump’s claim; the research, based largely on the experience of countries like Israel and Canada that allow trans military service, shows that allowing trans people to serve openly has little to no effect on military readiness or costs.
- Trump’s Justice Department says that anti-gay discrimination is totally legal. The Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination, doesn’t also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. This rebukes the argument of another federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and could leave gay and bisexual workers unprotected by federal law — and most state laws — if an employer fires them due to their sexual orientation.
Trump also seems ready to go even further. He has said, for example, that he would support the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow discrimination against LGBTQ people on a religious basis. And there have long been rumors — although they have yet to be substantiated — that Trump will sign a “religious freedom” order that will allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
When you put it all together, it’s clear where the administration truly stands on this issue. Although it didn’t regress on some fronts (protections for the federal workforce), it overall represents a huge step back on LGBTQ rights from the Obama administration.
There is still a lot of work to do on LGBTQ issues
It may be easy to see the massive progress of the past few years — particularly the momentous victory of same-sex marriage — and wonder what is left to be done when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
But there are still a lot of issues left to address.
Consider: We are just a little more than a year removed from the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida — not only the deadliest shooting in US history, but also one that explicitly targeted LGBTQ people. And if the shooting had happened just a few hundred miles north in Alabama or Georgia, it would not have been recognized as a hate crime under state law. It’d be recognized as a hate crime under federal law, but states maintain different laws to direct their own law enforcement agencies — and 20 don’t have such protections for any LGBTQ people.
We see this kind of patchwork at the state level with other laws relevant to LGBTQ people. For example, the federal government and most state laws explicitly prohibit discrimination in the workplace, housing, public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, and other places that serve the public), and schools based on race, sex (except public accommodations at the federal level), and other protected groups. But sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t explicitly included in federal or most state laws.
So in most states, it’s legal under local and state law to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, and schools. That means an employer can legally fire someone because he’s gay, a landlord can legally evict someone because she’s lesbian, and a hotel manager can legally deny service to someone who’s transgender — for no reason other than the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
In recent years, the battle over nondiscrimination protections has been held back by the bathroom myth. The argument, in short, is that if trans people are allowed to use the bathroom for their gender identity, either trans women or men who pose as trans women will sexually assault or harass women in bathrooms. There is zero evidence for this, as I have repeatedly explained. But the myth has been used to bar trans people from using the bathroom for their gender identity, with several states passing laws or considering bills to that effect.
Gavin Grimm, a trans teenager who’s sued his school for access to the right bathroom, best captured why these anti-trans policies are a problem: “This wasn’t just about bathrooms. It was about the right to exist in public spaces for trans people,” he told me, quoting trans actress Laverne Cox. “Without the access to appropriate bathrooms, there’s so much that you’re limited in doing. If you try to imagine what your day would be like if you had absolutely no restrooms to use other than the home, it would take planning. You would probably find yourself avoiding liquids, probably avoiding eating, maybe [avoiding] going out in public for too long at a time.”
This covers just a few of the many lingering issues in LGBTQ rights. There are also the unique challenges LGBTQ people face in the criminal justice system, LGBTQ youth homelessness, health issues like HIV/AIDS, and the extreme threat of deportation for undocumented immigrants fleeing anti-LGBTQ persecution.
Simply put, there is a lot to be done — and Trump doesn’t seem interested in doing it.
Trump is a reminder that rights gained can still be lost
Trump poses a threat to LGBTQ rights not just by stalling any potential gains on all of these fronts, but also by taking his own actions to pulling back LGBTQ rights. That has offered activists a powerful reminder that, despite the progress of the past few years, nothing should be taken for granted — it only takes one bad election to threaten it.
After all, the impact Trump will have on LGBTQ rights can only grow from here. Will he appoint another Supreme Court justice who won’t uphold LGBTQ rights — right as the court may soon consider whether workplace protections are covered by federal law? Will he encourage Congress to pass religious freedom measures that effectively allow discrimination against LGBTQ people? Will other actions he takes, such as an increase in deportations, disproportionately hurt LGBTQ people — by, for example, sending immigrants back to countries where they are persecuted for their identities?
Trump suggested it wouldn’t be this way, painting himself as a uniquely friendly figure to LGBTQ people on the campaign trail. That is proving to be false. But more than just showing Trump’s dishonesty, this potentially threatens the rights of millions of LGBTQ Americans just trying to get through their lives.