During his run for office, Donald Trump positioned himself as a champion of gay rights, someone who would bring the Republican Party into modernity on an increasingly settled civil rights cause. But well into his first year in the White House, those who hoped for the best have been disappointed and those who assumed the worst say their fears are realized.
The Trump administration’s record on LGBT issues has been defined by retrenchment, both sides concede. Many of the advances made under the Obama administration have disappeared, replaced by policies and directives that could have been written by an anachronistic social conservative instead of the cosmopolitan New York businessman occupying the Oval Office.
“I think, personally, the president has met my expectations,” said Chris Barron, a longtime conservative gay-rights activist. “My concern has always been what happens at the department and agency levels. And I definitely have concerns with what is going on at Department of Justice. The attorney general [Jeff Sessions] has a very different position on LGBT issues than the president does. But his job is to carry forward the president’s agenda and not push his own… I’m certainly concerned he is [pushing his own].”
Among gay-rights advocates, few had higher hopes for this White House than Barron. He was largely responsible for arranging for Trump to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011—an event credited with helping bring the reality TV star into the GOP mainstream. And though the activist occasionally soured on Trump’s campaign, Barron also launched an LGBTers for Trump group and championed the argument that the Republican nominee would be inherently better for the community than Hillary Clinton. After the election, Barron wrote that Trump would be an ally, friend, and advocate.
Instead, Barron and others are alarmed at the direction the administration is taking. Trump is responsible for some of it, having signed a directive banning the recruitment of transgender troops. But much of it has originated from his agencies. The Justice Department has changed its position on whether sexual orientation is covered under the Civil Rights Act, withdrawn federal protections for transgender kids in schools, and said it will not prosecute organizations who cite religious objections when declining to serve gay customers.
Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services quietly withdrew a 2014 rule that would have required longterm-care facilities to recognize same-sex marriages when deciding visitation rights and decision-making responsibilities (PDF). The agency argued that the legalization of same-sex marriages by the Supreme Court made the ruling moot, but advocates warned that it would open the doors to discrimination. This week, the National Park Service abruptly decided to withdraw its sponsorship of New York’s pride flag, which had been dedicated at the iconic Stonewall National Monument.
“Trump’s supporters like to say, ‘It’s not what he says, it’s what he does that matters.’ That’s definitely the case when it comes to issues affecting LGBT Americans,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, who started the now-defunct conservative gay rights group GOProud along with Barron. “I never thought that Donald Trump was an anti-gay homophobe. I certainly didn’t think that when I met him back in 2011. But we’ve all learned a lot about who he really is since then. With his political pandering and posturing to endear himself to the intolerant wing of the GOP over the last few years, it doesn’t surprise me that this administration will go down as the most anti-LGBT in history.”
Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, defended the department's record by noting that Attorney General Sessions had prioritized going after hate crimes, including those committed against transgender people. "This Department will continue to work tirelessly to prosecute and deter offenses like these because every American deserves to be safe," he added.
While the White House did not return a request for comment, Barron had an explanation for the backward drift on LGBT rights. Trump, he posited, was not one to sweat the details. And whether consumed by crises or simply disinterested, he has chosen to give far more latitude to culturally conservative aides to craft policy.
“So much is going on and there are so many fires that have to be put out daily that a lot of this stuff is flying under the radar,” said Barron.
It was certainly not supposed to have played out this way. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump vowed that he “would do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of the hateful, foreign ideology [of Islamist terror].” When the conservative crowd applauded, he paused and added, “I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said, thank you.”
“He will be the most gay-friendly Republican nominee for president ever,” Gregory T. Angelo, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, insisted to The New York Times in April 2016.
And while Trump may have turned to traditional Republicans, and some prominent cultural conservatives, to staff his administration, he also continued to rely on family members and more socially moderate New York finance types, which gave gay rights advocates renewed hope. But that faction of the Trump administration—most visibly represented by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner—has turned out to wield little influence.
This was never more clear than when Trump announced his transgender service ban in late July (on the anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s desegregation of the military, no less). According to one senior White House official, Ivanka and Jared had previously determined that their “political capital be spent elsewhere,” as their advice on LGBT issues had been routinely overruled in the administration even before the military trans ban.
With few, if any, LGBT champions inside the Oval Office, and with a president distracted not just by the news of the day but by the cable news chyrons that deliver it, the administration’s culture warriors have largely been given free rein. Those who warned that Trump’s pro-gay rights rhetoric was just empty bluster are more heartsick than content when they say, “I told you so.”
“As the Russia investigation heats up and as his failures at basic governing pile up, I think gays will more and more become scapegoats. It’s a pretty old, standard playbook for political bullies,” said Richard Socarides, who served as White House special assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. “Anyone who thought Trump would go easy on the gays was clearly wrong. The question now is not whether he will set us back, but how far.”