Why President Trump Isn’t Anti-Gay Enough for the Religious Right

The religious right is angry the Trump administration will keep Obama’s LGBT rights envoy. But they may still get the anti-gay legislation they desire.

Photo Illustration by the Daily Beast

The Trump administration has been a rollercoaster for anti-LGBT groups on the religious right.

This Monday the State Department announced that Randy Berry, the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons under President Obama, would keep “his role under the current administration,” as Foreign Policy first reported.

That move is the latest in a long line of mixed signals that the Trump administration has been sending on LGBT issues: First, Trump disappointed the anti-LGBT religious right in late January by refusing to reverse Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBT federal contractors from discrimination. Then, they hitched their hopes to a potential “religious freedom” executive order that was swirling around Washington but still has not been officially announced.

Finally, the Trump administration threw the anti-LGBT crowd a bone last Friday when the Department of Justice, now headed by Jeff Sessions, announced that it would not defend the Obama administration’s guidance on transgender students. But now that news has got out that Randy Berry is keeping his job, opponents of LGBT equality are none too pleased.

“They very much understand Randy Berry to be a leftover remnant of Obama’s international 'homosexual agenda' and are deadset on effectively cleansing the State Department of all pro-LGBTQ, pro-reproductive justice elements,” said Cole Parke, an LGBTQ and gender justice researcher for the small social justice think tank Political Research Associates, in an interview with The Daily Beast.

During the Obama administration, Berry focused his diplomatic efforts on countries like Uganda and Bangladesh where LGBT people are struggling to survive extremely hostile social climates. But some on the Christian right would rather have that work stop altogether.

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBT lobbying group Family Research Council, who said this week that Berry keeping his job was a “disappointing development.” Just last week, though, Perkins had praised the Trump administration, calling the Justice Department’s refusal to defend transgender students a “welcome first step.”

A similar whiplash occurred on LifeSiteNews, a highly-trafficked website for religious conservatives that “emphasizes the social worth of traditional Judeo-Christian principles,” according to its about page.

LifeSiteNews greeted the Justice Department’s withdrawal from the transgender rights case with an approving article that went out of its way to deliberately misgender trans teenager Gavin Grimm. A few days later, though, a writer for the site railed against Trump for keeping an “open homosexual” like Berry on the government payroll to “promote LGBT ‘rights’ around the world.”

“It is another blow to pro-family advocates who oppose the LGBT agenda and are counting on Trump to root out homosexual and abortion activists from the foreign affairs bureaucracy after eight years of Obama’s leftist policies,” the article read.

As Religion News Service reported, Berry staying on board at the State Department is being perceived as “the second blow to religious conservatives on LGBT issues,” following the White House’s decision last month to keep Obama’s 2014 protections.

But Parke, who researches and monitors anti-LGBT extremism on the religious right, doesn’t believe that the Family Research Council and other groups will want to engage in full-blown criticism of Trump just yet.

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“They’re not yet ready to be combative,” Parke told The Daily Beast. “I think they’re holding out until they get what they want, which is a complete redefinition of religious freedom—so until they’ve got the First Amendment Defense Act signed and into law, they’re going to continue to try to play nice with President Trump.”

The First Amendment Defense Act, as The Daily Beast has reported, is the brass ring for anti-LGBT groups: a sweeping piece of legislation that would effectively legalize nationwide discrimination against LGBT people in the name of “religious freedom.” If signed into law, it would be even more powerful than the “religious freedom” executive order that was leaked to the press in early February.

LGBT opponents might be angry with Trump in the short-term, then, but as long as FADA and the “religious freedom” executive order remain possible, they’ll likely keep coming to the table.

But the particular challenge with President Trump, Parke says, is that he’s a wild card on LGBT issues. The White House has claimed that Trump is “supportive of LGBTQ rights” and yet he selected as vice president a governor with an anti-LGBT track record. He once held up a rainbow flag at a campaign event and promised to “protect our LGBTQ citizens” in his nomination speech but, more substantially, he made several cabinet picks that rightfully frighten LGBT advocates.

That leaves anti-LGBT forces on the religious right in the position of targeting Trump’s closest aides, advisors, and allies rather than the president himself.

“The reality is that Mike Pence is their guy—that will be a relationship that they can continue to cultivate,” said Parke. “I don’t think anyone believes that Donald Trump is someone that can be relied on. So they’ll continue to cultivate relationships with those in power, those in the inner circle who can be swayed.”

Indeed, Mike Pence gave an interview to James Dobson, founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, in October 2016 suggesting that he and Trump would redirect the transgender bathroom issue to the local level rather than keeping Obama’s guidance in place. It didn’t take long after the election for the Justice Department to withdraw its defense of that guidance in a crucial court case.

But if it’s true that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner encouraged the president to keep Obama’s 2014 protections in place—as reports suggested—the inner circle could be less susceptible to anti-LGBT efforts than previously believed.

When Trump was first elected, anti-LGBT groups felt triumphant, as the Washington Blade reported. Tony Perkins called it a “historic moment.” The National Organization for Marriage dreamed about overturning Obergefell, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, and enshrining FADA into law. Michael Farris, president of the Christian anti-LGBT group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the election was a “window of opportunity,” as Pink News reported.

But so far, the Trump administration has been more of a bumpy ride for these groups than the history-changing revelation they wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean anti-LGBT groups on the religious right will give up, says Parke—and besides, they have plenty of other options to pursue on the state and local level in the meantime.

“The Christian right has inserted itself into every level of the government from the school board to the White House,” said Parke. “So even though they might be frustrated with Donald Trump’s failure to come down hard on LGBTQ people right now, I don’t think they’re feeling defeated at all.”