Content warning: homophobia and transphobia.
The Trump administration has spent the entirety of the past four years staging a systematic assault on LGBTQ+ rights in the United States of America.
On January 20th, 2017, the very day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, all references to LGBTQ+ content were removed from federal websites. On Jan. 8, 2021, a day after an attempted coup incited by the lame duck president, the Department of Health and Human Services passed a new rule ending protection against discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, affecting everything from health services to adoption. From the very get-go to the bitter end, the Trump administration has had LGBTQ+ rights as a major target.
As such, many LGBTQ+ people met the news that Donald Trump would be a one-term president with relief. It’s also heartening that his replacement, Joe Biden, has promised to not only undo the injustices of the past four years, but go beyond and usher greater equality than ever before.
Biden’s promises are bold. While Donald Trump and his enablers may be leaving, their policies have left an indelible mark on American policy, federal and state judicial systems, information and knowledge, and most importantly, people’s lives.
Disinformation to Discrimination
It’s not by happenstance that the Trump administration’s first blow to LGBTQ+ rights was one of erasure. Stopping ideas is the first step to stopping people, as any conservative politician claiming they’re being censored will loudly broadcast on every platform they have access to.
Over the past four years, and particularly in Trump’s first two years in office, the Trump administration set about purging references to the existence of LGBTQ+ people, and their rights, from every organization it could. These changes frequently foreshadowed, and at times actively aided, actual policy changes and subsequent discrimination.
Consider the chain of escalation in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s policies, particularly regarding transgender people. In April 2017, the HUD removed resources for homeless shelters on helping transgender people; later, in March 2018, the same department removed references to nondiscrimination from its mission statement. In 2019, this progressed to allowing shelters that discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender to continue to receive funding; in 2020, this escalated to a proposed new rule that would explicitly allow shelters to discriminate against transgender people by placing them in shelters based on their perceived sex, rather than their gender.
This pattern of erasure leading to exclusion is not unique. In March 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) opted to stop collecting information on LGBTQ+ people in its survey on older adults; and in 2019, the HHS stopped collecting data on LGBTQ+ and indigenous youth in foster care, a policy currently being challenged in court. These actions preceded the aforementioned rollback of protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity implemented this year, which has led to actual discrimination. The initial act of erasure served both as a precursor to and justification for unequal treatment.
These departments are far from the only ones to remove any mentions of LGBTQ+ and transgender people in particular. Officials at the United Nations attempted to replace any references to gender in U.N. human rights material; the U.S. Office of Personnel Management deleted guidance on how federal agencies should treat transgender employees. Most notably, questions about sexual orientation and gender identity were removed from the 2020 U.S. Census, after briefly appearing in a draft, leaving activists crestfallen.
It is far easier to sweep people under the rug when you can claim that they simply don’t exist. Statistics on populations is necessary to establish the need for funding and legislation. By halting existing data collection efforts and hiding any progress, the Trump administration began to make a world where LGBTQ+ people truly are invisible. The regulations and policy changes that got us to this point can and should be undone. However, the data vacuum—particularly, the botched 2020 census—will remain.
Dropping the T
Reviewing the past four years, a disturbing pattern emerges: while many of the Trump administration’s discriminatory policies affected all LGBTQ+ people (and some were aimed specifically at same-sex couples), a significant portion specifically targeted transgender people. Protections were revoked or new discriminatory policies were implemented affecting transgender people in prison, schools, the military, and more.
At times, this split in thinking manifested in a curious form of doublespeak, where figures allied with Trump cited his paltry accomplishments for the gay and bisexual communities, without addressing greater systemic issues. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, when questioned about Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military, counteredby talking about how Trump relaxed a ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men and doubled down on ending the AIDS pandemic. Richard Grenell, an openly gay man who was appointed by Trump to briefly direct national intelligence, claimed that his appointment proved that Trump was pro-LGBTQ+. Neither of these claims are relevant to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
Regardless of what good the Trump administration may or may not have done for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, nothing can erase its assault on transgender rights. One possible reason for this split in messaging is an attempt to provoke infighting in the LGBTQ+ community, appealing to one segment while leaving the rest behind. Another possibility is that, as acceptance of same-sex couples has risen considerably across the political spectrum, and remains significantly higher than acceptance of transgender people, the Trump administration simply wanted to move onto an easier target.
People from all parts of the LGBTQ+ community have stood together from the Stonewall riots to today. After all, homophobia and transphobia are fundamentally rooted in the same fear: that of gender nonconformity. Gay and bisexual people do not conform to their assigned gender by not loving the “correct” sex, while transgender people do not conform by going beyond their assigned gender entirely. Trump’s transphobic record may appeal to some transphobic LGB people who want to gain greater respectability from straight society. However, it is ultimately just another manifestation of the same intolerance, and benefits the same systems that affect us all.
Beyond the explicit effects of transphobic policy decisions, tacit or even explicit approval of transphobia and racism from the nation’s highest office may have also emboldened those predisposed to violence. In 2020, the number of transgender people—primarily black transgender women—murdered on American soil reached an all-time high; the Human Rights Campaign has recorded their names and stories here. Just as the president’s support for far-right militia groups helped lead to an attempted coup on the capital, his assault on trans rights quite possibly contributed to this spike in hate crimes.
Stacking the Courts
Besides establishing a pattern of homophobic and transphobic policies, Trump left an astonishing mark on the American judicial system, one that may make reversing the legacy of his administration more difficult for years to come.
The Trump administration’s controversial confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, after her predecessor Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s untimely death, stands out as a low point in Trump’s judicial record. Barrett’s devout Catholicism and association with anti-LGBTQ+ organizations alarmed activists, who were concerned that her personal views would affect her interpretation of the law.
The Supreme Court confirmations are only the most visible of Trump’s breakneck judicial confirmation streak. According to a report by Lambda Legal, not only did Trump appoint more circuit court judges in his 4-year term than any other recent president, but at least 40% of them have a confirmed history of making anti-LGBTQ+ decisions. While smaller than the Supreme Court, these judges can have a broad impact on court cases around the country.
Given the volume of Trump’s appointees and the degree of their bias, his spree of judicial appointments may have a lasting impact on the courts, making future LGBTQ+ rights cases difficult to win, past violations difficult to overturn, and hard-fought victories suddenly in danger of being reverted.
What Comes Next?
The Biden administration has promised to reverse Trump administration’s campaign against LGBTQ+ rights. To say that they have their work cut out for them would be a gross understatement. Trump’s legacy of erasure of LGBTQ+ identities, his pivot towards blatant transphobia, and his nomination of justices opposed to LGBTQ+ rights in courts high and low, cannot be easily overturned with executive orders or new appointments to key offices.
One must also wonder whether the Biden campaign will follow up on their promises. Until the last decade or so, Joe Biden’s position on gay rights was hardly progressive, though he eventually made a turnaround by making a stand against the very Defense of Marriage Act he had helped pass. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris has consistently helped deny sex reassignment surgery to incarcerated trans people, as well as supported the sex work criminalization laws that land many trans people in prison in the first place. While it’s certainly possible for people to grow and change, these track records fall short of their campaign’s messaging.
Still, some of the administration’s early actions have been promising. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and a transgender woman, was recently selected as the Biden administration’s assistant secretary of health. Her selection follows the nomination of former mayor and openly-gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, along with a number of other minor posts being filled by gay and lesbian candidates. Whether having LGBTQ+ people in those roles will translate to actual policy remains to be seen, but it’s a better start. Signing a first-day executive order to reinstate protections for LGBTQ+ federal employees isn’t bad, either.
It’s also worth noting that the past four years have not been without any victories. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with the majority opinion written by none other than Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch. Laws and regulation restricting the ability of transgender people to use the bathroom were stymied in North Carolina and Florida. Public opinion on LGBTQ+ rights is at an all-time high, with no sign of reverting. While there is much to mourn and to fear, it is worth taking some time to celebrate how far we’ve come.
What will come to pass in the next four years is anyone’s guess. It inspires some optimism to hear that those entrusted with the nation’s future have promised to do better by LGBTQ+ people. What remains for we, the people, to do is hold them to their word.