Trump continues assault on LGBT rights

Donald Trump and Mike Pence at RNC July 2016
Donald Trump and Mike Pence at RNC July 2016

But LGBT people make historic gains in 2018 elections

Two years into the presidency of Donald Trump, one thing has become abundantly clear: his statement declaring that he would be a friend to the LGBT community was categorically and undeniably false, even laughably so. Trump wasted little time in dismantling the rights earned by the LGBT community in order to appease his most ardent followers.

In 2018, Trump pushed to ban transgender soldiers and sailors from serving in the military and created a Religious Freedom task force. This enormous effort started as a tweet in July 2017, then gained serious traction and national attention. Trump claimed that the presence of out transgender service members would be a detriment to military forces, as they aren’t considered deployable. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis rolled out an implementation plan in March. It would have forcefully discharged those who were diagnosed with either “gender dysphoria” or had undergone a “gender transition,” including received hormones or gender confirmation therapy.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction against the ban in October 2017. The injunction kept the Trump administration from putting the ban in place so long as it was being fought in the courts. Since then, the Trump administration has asked Kollar-Kotelly on three occasions, most recently Nov. 30, to stay or dissolve the injunction. In that request, the administration asked for the stay so it could ask the Supreme Court to take up the case before lower courts had a chance to rule on the ban’s constitutionality. Kollar-Kotelly found that the “Mattis Plan” and Trump’s plan weren’t any different, with both forcing transgender military members to hide or renounce their identities.

“[T]olerating a person with a certain characteristic only on the condition that they renounce that characteristic is the same as not tolerating them at all,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her original ruling.

Five transgender service members asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to maintain its injunction. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit, Doe v. Trump, claims that the ban is discriminatory, violating their rights to equal protection and due process under the Fifth Amendment, and doing nothing to help military readiness or foster unit cohesion, which the Administration asserts to strengthen its argument.

The service members are being represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders. GLAAD Transgender Rights Project Director Jennifer Levi spoke to the D.C. Circuit on Dec. 10, urging the justices to keep the injunction in place.

“The government is playing word games by arguing that transgender people can serve in their birth sex. That is a contradiction in terms,” Levi said in a statement following Monday’s oral arguments. “This is not a game. What’s at stake here is the lives of dedicated service members, who are willing and able to serve—and are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”

Lambda Legal and SLDN are suing Donald Trump
Lambda Legal and SLDN are suing Donald Trump

Doe v. Trump is just one of four lawsuits that have been brought to challenge the ban, with federal judges issuing nationwide preliminary injunctions to keep the Pentagon from going forward. Those judges have also found that the plaintiffs—service members, ROTC members, military academy students, or enlistees—would likely win on their claim that the ban is unconstitutional and a violating of their rights.

“Throughout this case, I have been privileged to meet and represent courageous young people who want nothing more than to meet the military’s high standards and to serve their country,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Instead, they have been swept up in a discriminatory political firestorm that has nothing to do with either what’s best for the military or their ability to serve. Their futures and who we are as a country are at stake.”

On the religious liberty front, anti-LGBT activists have stepped up their attacks on LGBT rights, seemingly emboldened by the Supreme Court decision that sided with Masterpiece Bake Shop in denying a same-sex couple a wedding cake. The rallying cry for these anti-LGBT activists is that religious “freedoms” are being infringed upon or imperiled by having to treat members of the LGBT community as equals, especially when it comes to supplying services or goods.

On July 30, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights, announced the task force’s formation. The task force would enforce a 2017 Department of Justice memo that ordered federal agencies to take the broadest interpretation of “religious liberty” when enforcing federal law. This would include prohibiting the IRS from taking away the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that lobbied on behalf of a political candidate, something not allowed by the Johnson Amendment. Sessions said the task force was necessary to stop secularism.

“A dangerous movement,” he said in a speech that day, “undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom, which must be confronted and defeated.”

Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth Williams were appointed to lead the task force. In 2010, Panuccio, as an attorney, defended supporters of Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot item that banned same-sex marriage in California.

“We have gotten to the point,” Sessions said, “where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law, where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit, and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them a ‘hate group’ on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs. Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds are concerned about what this changing cultural climate means for the future of religious liberty in this country.”

Though the task force will only enforce the memo’s guidelines, Session used his moment at the podium to paint a picture of America as a Christian nation under attack. The message was clear, and a continuation of the perverse rhetoric of the Trump campaign, using the federal government as a way to preserve and protect Christian America.

Despite the bleak spots in 2018, there is a bit of hope emerging from the 2018 midterm elections. LGBT candidates ran in record numbers for political office. Massachusetts voters chose to keep a two-year-old law that protected transgender people from discrimination in public places such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and hotels. The law had been challenged by conservatives who got enough signatures to put a repeal measure on the ballot. This was the first time a law prohibiting gender discrimination was put to a statewide vote.

LGBT people of color won several seats in state legislatures, including Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Colorado, Shevrin Jones of Florida, and Malcolm Kenyatta, who is also the first openly LGBT person of color elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature.

In Kansas, Sharice Davids won a seat in the House of Representatives, becoming the first lesbian congresswoman from the state and one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Brandon Woodard, who identifies as gay, and Susan Ruiz, who is a lesbian, were elected as state representatives. Kansas had been one of only seven states that had never elected an openly LGBT state legislator.

In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor in any state.