LGBT rights advocacy groups are bracing for challenging times in Washington as President-elect Trump assembles his cabinet and prepares to take office this week [Jan. 20]. "It's not going to be an administration that's going to be good for LGBT rights," says Elliot Imse, director of communications for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute. But Imse and other LGBT leaders say they are not going to take the next four years lying down.
The Victory Fund, a political action committee devoted to electing openly LGBT candidates to public office at all levels of government, hosted a gathering of more than 500 LGBT officials in Washington one month after the election to plan strategy for coming battles in Washington and in state capitals around the country. Participants were "revved up," Imse says. They were "extremely excited to be talking strategy instead of mourning election day," he adds.
Trump will take office after eight years that have been relatively good for LGBT advocates under President Barack Obama. As president, Obama backed LGBT rights in a number of areas for example, in a significant executive order late in his second term that bans anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors. He also helped secured major victories from the other two branches of the federal government.
Obama lobbied Congress for and signed into law the 2010 legislation that set in motion the Pentagon's eventual elimination of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy against openly LGBT military service members. Obama also greenlighted the government's decisions to argue successfully at the Supreme Court in 2013 against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and in favor of the landmark decision in 2015 guaranteeing marriage rights for same-sex couples nationwide.
Trump sent shivers of fear through the LGBT community back in August with his selection of Indiana's governor Mike Pence as his running mate. As governor, Pence in 2015 signed a religious freedom bill that allowed individuals and companies to refuse services to LGBT individuals by citing religious objections. LGBT organizations highlighted a photograph of the bill-signing showing Pence to be flanked by leaders of anti-LGBT organizations. Among other Pence policies, they noted that he supported the federal anti-gay marriage amendment and that back in his first run for Congress in 2001 he called for using federal anti-HIV/AIDS funds to support groups that promote so-called gay conversion therapy.
Since the election, Trump has further disheartened LGBT groups with his selections for cabinet positions. As one example, Betsy DeVos, selected to be secretary of education, has reportedly donated with her husband hundreds of thousands of dollars to Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that among other positions favors gay conversion therapy. Attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions also has a record of opposing pro-LGBT measures during his two decades as a U.S. senator from Alabama. He supported the federal marriage amendment, opposed repealing "don't ask, don't tell," and voted against taking up a federal measure to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace.
During the Obama years, Congress was hospitable to LGBT issues only when Democrats held a majority in both chambers in his first two years in the White House. The 2016 elections left Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, though with slightly reduced majorities. Imse acknowledges the unfavorable climate for LGBT issues at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. "We have a Congress and an administration that are most likely going to oppose LGBT issues and most likely try to turn the clock back on LGBT rights," he says.
Imse stresses that the number of openly LGBT elected officials is at an all-time high. On Capitol Hill, there are six openly LGBT members of Congress: Wisconsin's Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin and six member of the House, all Democrats. Imse and Baldwin both cite the defeat of North Carolina's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, as a cautionary tale for politicians who take high-profile stands against LGBT rights.
McCrory's narrow defeat by Democrat Rory Cooper was widely attributed to his signing a bill, known as HB 2, that nullified local LGBT rights measures and required transgender individuals to use public restrooms corresponding to their birth sex instead of their gender identity. "I think if Donald Trump wants to take the same path as Governor McCrory, he's going to face resistance from businesses and families across the country," Baldwin says. Imse agrees. "Public opinion is now on the side of LGBT equality," he says, "and that includes Democrats and Republicans."
Anti-LGBT forces appear to have the initiative at present. Since the election, legislators in Texas and Virginia have introduced so-called bathroom bills comparable to the North Carolina measure. Meanwhile, the issue is pending in the courts. A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Obama administration policy guidance that schools allow transgender students to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity. And the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments this spring in an argument by a local school board in Virginia seeking to overturn a lower court decision favoring a transgender student's right to use a bathroom corresponding to his gender identity.
Imse promises that LGBT officials will be "extremely vocal and united when anti-equality agendas are proposed or put forward." Baldwin also acknowledges that LGBT advocates will be on defense for the foreseeable future. “Defensive battles will have to be fought wherever efforts to roll back hard-won rights are launched," she says.