Trump’s legacy on LGBTQ rights: sheer destruction

Media helped promote Trump as pro-equality. And many people, hoping against all hope, wanted to believe it.

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Several days after the 2016 election, I wrote a piece at HuffPost, where I was then editor-at-large, headlined, The Mike Pence (Donald Trump) Assault On LGBTQ Equality Is Already Underway. The sub-headline noted that “it’s only a matter of time before we know the full magnitude.”

The piece was widely-read, and certainly among many LGBTQ people and activists it was taken as a warning — over two months before Trump took office — of what was to come, just by looking at who’d been lined up for the transition team.

But I also received responses from many people who thought the piece was overblown or alarmist. On Facebook, Twitter and in the comments, as well as when I was out socializing, some challenged me, often pointing to how Trump hadn’t made a big show of attacking LGBTQ rights or that he had the openly gay tech billionaire Peter Thiel speak at the Republican National Convention. Some even opined that even if he did promise anti-LGBTQ actions quietly to the religious right, he’d never deliver, since he and his family knew and worked with many gay people in New York.

These weren’t Trump supporters by any stretch of the imagination. They were straight and LGBTQ liberals who voted for Hillary Clinton, and were devastated by the election. But they were trying to make the best of it, rationalizing, looking for any evidence they could find that Trump wouldn’t be so bad for LGBTQ rights.

And the day after my piece published, on November 13th, they thought they’d gotten some big evidence: An interview Trump sat for with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” aired, after which media reports breathlessly claimed Trump affirmed support for LGBTQ equality. There were headlines that proclaimed he is now an “ally” of LGBTQ people and others that blared Trump said he is “fine” with same-sex marriage and had changed a prior position in which he was opposed.

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But Trump lied in that interview — surprise, surprise! — stating that marriage equality was “settled,” even while the list of 20 judges he’d promised he’d choose his Supreme Court nominations from during the campaign included opponents of same-sex marriage and one, William Pryor, who still even believed homosexuality should be illegal. Few if any of the media reports pointed that out.

Trump of course doesn’t get to decide what’s “settled” law — the justices do. And three of those right-wing judges from his list are now on the court, appointed by him, and will be on the court for more than a generation and threatening marriage equality, set to hollow it out by creating religious exemptions around it and around many other rights for LGBTQ people.

In that first piece after the election I wrote:

First, forget any of your thinking that Donald Trump is from New York City, probably has gay friends, sent Elton John a congratulatory note on his civil union in 2005, used the term “LGBTQ” (in pitting gays against Muslims at the Republican National Convention, when he vowed only to protect us from a “hateful foreign ideology”) or any other superficial things you may have read or heard.

Ronald Reagan was from Hollywood, and he, too, had many gay friends, including legendary actor Rock Hudson…But once Reagan made his pact with the religious right leaders in his 1980 successful run for the presidency ― for him, among them was Jerry Falwell, Sr., for Trump it’s Jerry Falwell Jr.― he had to bow to them if he wanted to get re-elected in 1984. That meant letting thousands of gay men, transgender women, African-Americans and members of other affected groups die from AIDS (including his friend Hudson) without even saying the word “AIDS” until years into the plague…

I noted that Vice President Mike Pence, according to Trump’s former (and eventually disgraced, convicted and pardoned) campaign manager Paul Manafort, would be like the “CEO or COO” of a presidency run by the businessman, Trump, who was going to be like the “chairman of the board” — as dysfunctional and corrupt as this corporate-modeled presidency would be. Within days of the election the staunchly anti-LGBTQ Pence in fact replaced Chris Christie as head of the transition team.

Ben Carson, who compared homosexuality to pedophilia and incest, was a vice chairman of the transition team (and would go on to become Housing Secretary), and so was Newt Gingrich, who had attacked what he called “gay fascism.” And they appointed as lead domestic policy director on the transition team Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state who has compared homosexuality to arson and kleptomania.

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Together, Pence and his band of theocrats filled the transition team and the administration with religious extremists. It wasn’t difficult to see what would happen from there. I knew then Trump would overturn Obama’s executive orders that protected LGBTQ people — which he’s done, on everything from the anti-discrimination protections among federal contractors to protections under the Affordable Care Act — not because I’m clairvoyant, but because Trump himself had indicated he would do so in a campaign speech he gave in October of 2016 during the campaign.

Mike Pence also gave an interview that month before the election on Christian radio stating that he and Trump would overturn Obama’s guidance for transgender students if elected — which they did, one month into the administration. Trump spent much of the 2016 campaign meeting with religious conservatives and promising to carve out “religious liberty” protections and appoint judges who would overturn marriage equality.

I point all of this out now because it was plain as day during the campaign — said publicly by Pence and Trump — so it was easy to see in those first days after the election exactly where the Trump transition and administration were going.

It should have been no shock to anyone that Trump would dramatically harm LGBTQ rights, as ProPublica reported in detail with 31 examples in late November of 2019, in areas from employment and schools to criminal justice and foster care and adoption. It was not difficult to see then that Trump would eventually be the most dangerous president for LGBTQ rights in history.

But mainstream media coverage of the campaign and even the transition period abysmally promoted Trump as somehow pro-LGBTQ, based on the most superficial statements and gestures, while he was being quite clear to religious conservatives. I and others had written over and over again throughout the election campaign ― as the media had bizarrely and irresponsibly portrayed Trump as “more accepting on gay issues” ― that media were ignoring or downplaying Trump meeting with religious extremists, and making promises to them.

It was astounding how this went on throughout the four years of Trump’s presidency, even after he’d proved himself to be an enemy of equality. Reporters kept trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, expecting he’d turn the corner or do better next time. Whether it was driven by competition for access to the White House or by some real belief that Trump’s “human” side would emerge from the sociopathic authoritarian shell, it was a complete abdication of their responsibilities.

Now, at the end of his presidency, when we look at Trump’s LGBTQ legacy we see it is one of utter destruction. Just think about one among so many examples: the lives of transgender service members devastated by Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military — decorated soldiers and officers, much-needed members of the military, whose careers and families have been terribly affected for the rest of their lives.

Even as President-elect Joe Biden can end that ban, and stop other Trump anti-LGBTQ rollbacks, the damage to those lives can’t be undone. Nor can Biden undo the damage Trump’s Supreme Court appointees will do in making LGBTQ people into second class citizens, as we’re already seeing cases coming before the court that look set to roll back rights for at least a generation. We have enormous work to do.

A lesson here is for the media, which was dismissive and ultimately reckless, as reporters sought access and played down Trump’s promises to decimate LGBTQ rights. They must be slammed and shamed — and we can’t ever forget what they did. And there is a lesson as well for all those among us who wanted to believe it wouldn’t be so bad, and didn’t quickly face reality staring them in the face.

That lesson is vital because there will be another authoritarian who will try to tap into the still-raging Trump cult. And that person may be more competent and even slicker than Trump. We had better be ready.