On Wednesday, Washington Blade reporter Chris Johnson asked President Obama a question that’s on many LGBT Americans’ minds: What’s going to happen to our rights under President Trump and his cabinet?
“How confident are you that progress [on LGBT rights] will endure or continue under the President-elect?” Johnson asked, after recapping some of the achievements of the last eight years: the legalization of same-sex marriage, the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and more.
In response, the outgoing president put a brave face on—but maybe too brave of a face.
“I don’t think it is something that will be reversible because American society has changed; the attitudes of young people, in particular, have changed,” Obama said.
He went on to predict that “there are still going to be some battles that need to take place,” particularly around transgender rights, but that pro-LGBT attitudes among “young people of Malia [and] Sasha’s generation” would ultimately carry the day.
It’s clear that Obama took the same approach to LGBT rights as a good Boy Scout does to his campground: He left them in a better state than he first found them. But how much has American society really “changed” during his tenure?
At the press conference, the president referred to a “transformation that’s taken place in our society” around LGBT rights. But was it an irreversible “transformation” after all? Not quite.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that anti-LGBT sentiment will be an enduring feature of the American cultural and political landscape. And there are no guarantees that the progress the Obama administration has made cannot be turned back.
According to Gallup, just under 30 percent of Americans still believe that same-sex sexual relationships—not even marriages, mind you—should be illegal. Over a third oppose same-sex marriage and 37 percent maintain that “gay or lesbian relations” are “morally wrong.”
Transgender bathroom rights nearly divide the country in half. Taken together, those statistics show a fairly stable cohort of homophobic and transphobic voters who will continue to shape electoral politics for decades to come, even with a rising generation of more tolerant young people entering public life.
In fact, even though attitudes toward same-sex marriage have improved considerably, even dramatically, since Obama’s first inauguration, there are several LGBT-related areas where public opinion has barely been budging in recent years—especially if you look away from the purely political questions toward more cultural ones.
Just like the economy is technically recovering but doesn’t necessarily feel like it is, political advances in LGBT equality don’t necessarily translate into social acceptance.
As The Daily Beast has previously reported, several key measures of anti-LGBT bullying in U.S. high schools only fell by about 2 percent per year between 2005 and 2015, per data from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
According to annual polling commissioned by GLAAD, nearly 37 percent of non-LGBT respondents said in 2015 that they would be uncomfortable with their child having an LGBT history lesson in school.
The figure for the previous year was exactly the same: 37 percent. (Ditto for the percentage of respondents who said they wouldn’t like seeing an LGBT co-worker’s wedding picture, which only moved from 27 percent in 2014 to 26 percent in 2015.)
When a shockingly large percentage of Americans still can’t even handle a same-sex couple kissing on the cheek, it’s hard to buy into the notion that there’s been a radical “transformation” of our society since 2008. And although certain of Obama’s pro-LGBT changes would be easier to retract than others, none of them are written in stone.
By contrast, pro-LGBT protections enacted through executive orders—like anti-discrimination protections for federal contractors—could be quickly and easily eliminated.
Military milestones could crumble as well. Trump’s Secretary of Defense Pick General James Mattis notably did not send any signals that he would undo the Obama administration’s reversal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which banned lesbian, gay, and bisexual people from serving openly in the military.
But in response to a question about the recent advances in transgender military service, Mattis’ future Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump said last October that the military is getting “politically correct” and it’s “ridiculous.”
Transgender bathroom rights are—and will continue to be—under attack in North Carolina and elsewhere. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who delivered a stirring defense of transgender rights in response to this made-up controversy last spring, is likely to be replaced by Jeff Sessions, whose civil rights record fell under sharp scrutiny during his confirmation hearings.
And the significant but unsung 2010 policy change that allows transgender Americans to receive the appropriate gender markers on their passports without costly surgery? The next incarnation of the State Department could change that.
With Mike Pence as Vice President, Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, and several more Supreme Court vacancies on the horizon, a Trump administration will only be limited by its own restraint when it comes to LGBT issues.
But even though LGBT advances are all too “reversible,” President Obama was spot-on about one thing: the vast majority of young people support full equality. Last April, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that Americans aged 18 to 29 support transgender rights by a two-to-one margin, with Americans over 60 opposing them by the same margin. And according to Pew, over 70 percent of millennials support same-sex marriage.
The only catch is that millenials aren’t voting where it counts and older voters are. Boomers and the Silent Generation have both grown marginally more accepting over time but the majority of them still oppose same-sex marriage, per Pew data.
Frankly speaking, that means that LGBT progress might only be inevitable because death is also inevitable. But unlike death, LGBT advances are definitely reversible.