LGBT Rights Under Trump: Whither The Rainbow?

By Philip Apfel, Deputy Features Editor,

In July of this year, Donald Trump made history as the first presidential nominee to ever explicitly pledge to protect LGBTQ people at a Republican National Convention. In October, a picture of him brandishing a rainbow flag at a rally in Colorado went viral. The uninformed onlooker could almost be forgiven for the assumption that we have finally found a Republican president who is supportive of LGBTQ rights. However, even a cursory look back at his campaign and his current political alliances exposes those lonely sprinkles of ostensible grace and acceptance as empty, pandering gestures which will never translate into LGBTQ-friendly politics. In fact, the next few years portend an all-out assault on LGBTQ rights that will shatter much of the hope of a brighter, more equal future that was engendered by the Obama administration.

As flip-flopping, vagueness and inconsistency are his political raison d’être, over-focusing on any individual statements that Trump made on LGBTQ rights while on the campaign trail would be ill-advised. However, to genuinely believe that he will help protect this embattled minority upon being sworn into office would be misguided too. Ralph Reed, chairman of the ‘Faith and Freedom Coalition’, who helped mobilize Christian voters – successfully, as 81% of white evangelicals ended up voting for Trump – has stated that “I am confident he will do as president what he said he would do as a candidate”. Even if one believes Reed is wrong, that belief requires one to ignore an awful lot. Trump has pledged to repeal the ‘Affordable Care Act’, which protects transgender people from discrimination in accessing healthcare. Furthermore, after a bit of flip-flopping, he came out in favour of HB2 (the ‘Bathroom Bill’), the hugely controversial anti-transgender law in North Carolina. He has promised to sign the ‘First Amendment Defence Act’ (should it be passed by Congress), which would give businesses and even health care providers the right to fire or refuse services to LGBTQ individuals, as long as they claim to be motivated by personal religious beliefs. This piece of legislation casts wide; far beyond marriage-licence-issuing or wedding-cake-making, it would allow restaurant owners to refuse to serve gay people food, for example. Finally, after praising the recently-deceased ultra-conservative Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia (Scalia has compared homosexuality to prostitution, murder, polygamy, cruelty to animals, adult incest and bestiality; he also once said that African American students might do better if they attended slower-track schools, implying that they are mentally inferior to their white peers), Trump promised to appoint a judge just as conservative to replace him. During an interview with Fox News, Trump said he would “strongly consider” appointing judges who would, if given the chance, overturn the marriage equality decision (Obergefell v Hodges 2015) from last year.

While Trump’s statements on the campaign trail are some cause to worry, it is when one looks at who he intends to share his power with, that this worry justifiably shifts into fear. In a Republican Party whose 2016 platform already exhibits some of the most regressive, far-right policy goals in recent memory (besides virulently opposing rights equality for LGBTQ individuals and endorsing ‘conversion therapy’ for gay teenagers, it calls for a loosening of gun controls nationwide, a further opening of America’s shores to oil and gas drilling, expansion of fracking, and for ignoring global climate change agreements), many of Trump’s appointees and Cabinet-hopefuls inhabit the outer fringes. On the right.

Ken Blackwell, former Ohio Secretary of State, was recently appointed to lead domestic policy on the transition team. He has compared homosexuality to arson and kleptomania, arguing that it is a compulsion that can be “contained, repressed or changed”. Ben Carson, who some might remember from the Republican primary, has been appointed Vice Chairman of the transition team. He has compared gay rights campaigning to “fascism”, and has compared homosexuality to pedophilia and incest. Steve Bannon, former executive chair of Breitbart news and alt-right conservative, in a decision that white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called an “excellent choice”, was named to the role of chief strategist. Bannon has a history of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ comments. He once called women with progressive views “a bunch of dykes”, and said, addressing Target’s transgender-friendly bathroom policy, that people “don’t want their four-year-old daughter to have to go into a bathroom with a guy with a beard in a dress”. Tony Perkins was appointed to Trump’s ‘pro-life advisory council’. Strongly in favour of conversion therapy for homosexuals, he has stated that this year’s Republican National Convention did not go far enough in its endorsement of conversion therapy. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is a possible pick for secretary of defense. In the last few years, he has repeatedly voted against adding sexual orientation or gender identity to hate crime legislation.

Finally, the appointment of Mike Pence as Trump’s Vice President and, most recently, leader of Trump’s transition team, is perhaps the most worrying, considering how much power Pence is going to wield (wanting to spend his weekends in Trump tower, and wanting to continue doing rallies, Trump has given us every indication that he is not going to be a very ‘hands-on’ commander in chief). In the course of his early political career right up to and including his tenure as Governor of Indiana, Pence has consistently supported laws that allow businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers in the name of religious freedom, and laws which allow individuals to be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation. He staunchly opposed Obama’s repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (which prohibited gay and lesbian Americans, no matter how qualified, from serving in the armed forces), arguing that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a discrete and insular minority entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities”. Furthermore, Pence, just as the RNC platform does, famously supports gay conversion therapy. This is an – often Christianity-motivated – practice that intends to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity. Therapy practices include talk therapy, aversion therapy, and even electroshock therapy. Aside from having been rejected as ineffective by every mainstream medical and mental health organization in America (including the American Psychological Association), many such institutions have also condemned conversion therapy practices as mental and physical child abuse. Currently, only five states and the District of Columbia have laws protecting LGBTQ teens from being forced into conversion therapy practices.

In light of the above, it becomes clear that it is the combination of several factors: a president who might not care personally, but who is unlikely to take positive action to protect LGBTQ citizens, a Republican Party that is more anti-LGBT than ever, but also more powerful (Republicans control the House, the Senate, and have increased control in state legislatures), and a presidential Cabinet filled with staunchly homophobic individuals, that creates a political environment in which thousands of Americans need to worry about their rights and their safety once Trump takes the mantle.

It is hard to forecast what exact form the assault on LGBTQ rights and livelihoods will take. However, some tentative predictions can be made.

Marriage equality, as established nation-wide in the momentous SCOTUS decision in June of last year, should be safe for now. Neither Trump nor anyone in his future cabinet will have the power to remove what the Supreme Court has deemed a “fundamental right”. Even if Trump appoints a judge as conservative as Scalia, the five SCOTUS members who were in the majority in June still remain. However, existing proposals for anti-discrimination legislation are almost certain to flatline and, outside of marriage equality, protections for LGBTQ rights that were created via executive order by Obama, or were made by state legislatures or Congress, are all fair game.

For example, an Obama administration guidance which recommended that schools treat transgender students in accordance with their gender identity is likely to be nullified. So is Executive Order 13672, which states that federal contractors cannot be fired on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Furthermore, the ‘Affordable Care Act’, which has a non-discrimination provision that includes gender identity and sexual orientation, is likely going to be repealed by a Congress in Republican control.

A piece of legislation that would constitute a major step towards LGBTQ equality, the ‘Equality Act’, which has not yet passed through Congress but which was introduced in 2015, will very likely wither away quietly under a Trump administration. Certainly, it has no hope of passing through a Republican controlled Congress. This is particularly unfortunate. The legislative proposal has been lauded as the “most sweeping anti-discrimination law for LGBT people ever proposed”, because it covers eight major areas of discrimination law under which LGBTQ people are currently not protected: public accommodations, public education, employment, housing, federal funding, jury service, legal protections, and credit. In many places, the status quo wherein you can be denied a job, a hotel room, housing, or equal access to credit simply because of who you love or your gender identity, will therefore continue.

Refusal to implement such existing proposals is complemented with high levels of political drive for passing legislation which will further decrease the status of LGBTQ individuals. In this regard, as alluded to earlier, the transgender community is likely to be hit particularly hard. According to Transgender Law Center Executive Director Kris Hayashi, “in 2016 we saw an upswing in anti-trans legislation, more than we’d ever seen before” (for example, Mike Pence’s HB2). And this was with Obama sitting in the White House. Under Trump, the scale and scope of anti-transgender legislation of this kind is almost certain to be larger.

Finally, no analysis of the future for American LGBTQ citizens is complete without discussion of the risk of bullying and violence that many LGBTQ citizens have faced and will probably increasingly face under a Trump presidency. In the course of Trump gaining momentum in the primary, and particularly since his election, reports of right wing hate crimes against all different kinds of minorities, including African Americans, Muslims and LGBTQ individuals have soared. Emboldened by Trump’s anti-minority rhetoric, the racist, islamophobic, homophobic underbelly of American society has crept from the shadows, and towards the political mainstream. Four years of a Trump presidency will provide further validation to all those forces.

Despite all of these bleak political developments, hope remains. Among some demographics, particularly young people, social acceptance of the LGBTQ community is at a level today that would have been unthinkable just fifteen years ago. Millennials, independent new media organizations, social activists and non-profit organizations are not going to stand idly by as their friends’ and family members’ hard-fought-for rights are ripped away from them. To quote Chad Griffin, president of ‘Human Rights Campaign’, “To every LGBTQ person across this nation feeling stunned and disheartened, and questioning if they have a place in this country today, I say this: You do. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise”.


Features Editor