Are LGBTQ rights on the line under the new administration? We spoke with Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, about challenges that face LGBTQ community under Trump.
As a candidate, Trump became the first GOP nominee to promise to protect LGBTQ Americans and feature an openly gay man on the primetime convention floor. He waved a rainbow pride flag at a campaign rally in Colorado, and welcomed Caitlyn Jenner at his inaugural celebration. Trump supported amending the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation protections and supported the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
At the same time, he surrounds himself with people like Mike Pence, who opposes same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ individuals. He also appointed former Senator Jeff Sessions, who has a long legislative record of voting against the interests of LGBTQ Americans, to be Attorney General. How do you explain these contradictions?
Sharita Gruberg: I think what matters is what he does, not what he says. He appointed some of the LGBTQ movement’s biggest opponents to carry out the day-to-day government work. For example, Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health (OCR) and Human Services, has spent his career suing the government for protecting LGBTQ people. In the past, Severino worked to oppose OCR’s integration of the Affordable Care Act, which provides protection based on gender identity in federally-funded health programs and called for defunding Planned Parenthood. Ben Carson, in his confirmation hearing for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) called LGBT rights “special rights”; Betsy DeVos’s family has invested funds to undermine LGBTQ rights. One of her first actions as Secretary of the Department of Education was to repeal protections for Trans students, in partnership with Jeff Sessions.
When there has been the opportunity to not necessarily advance LGBTQ equality but to preserve the Obama administration’s progress, the current administration has chosen to undermine the basic rights of the community. Current developments show that the situation is going to worsen. The executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty", signed by President Trump on May 4th, directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to review policies across the government for possibilities to expand religious liberty. In concrete terms, this means a decrease of support and in the equal treatment of LGBTQ people.
You have just mentioned the executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” Are there other policies in the making or already implemented that are going to similarly impact the LGBTQ community?
We are faced with an enormous reduction of data collection. We were supposed to receive analytical data on the topics of sexual orientation and gender from the American community survey, an annual survey that provides data to help determine how federal and state funds are distributed. We haven’t received anything so far. These are subtle rollbacks, which affect the entire community. How can we improve our federal programs without knowing who is in need of governmental support?
Moreover, many LGBTQ people are also people of color, women, live in poverty, or are criminalized. The community is vulnerable in many aspects, and their basic rights are being attacked on multiple fronts. Every single assault on everyday Americans be it less health care protections or the absence of community block grants (which fund things like building affordable housing or support programs for low-income children) is going to hurt the LGBTQ community even worse.
You just described the diversity within the LGBTQ community. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that 14 percent of LGBTQ people voted for Trump. Why do you think that is? Was Islamophobia a contributing factor?
There are several reasons why and how a vote is cast. The so-called “Log Cabin Republicans” for example are the United States largest Republican organization representing LGBT conservatives and their allies. If you are a white cisgender gay man who is economically secure and favors tax reductions, you’re voting judging by your economic interest.
Regarding Islamophobia, I see that as a very disturbing trend. A narrative exists that granting Syrian refugees’ asylum is a threat to LGBTQ Americans. It unfortunately ignores the rather large number of LGBTQ Syrians in desperate need of protection.
A few months ago, you published an article LGBT Refugees’ Lives Depend on the U.S. Resettlement Program referring to the executive order that was intended to suspend refugee resettlement in the United States for 120 days. Could you explain how the proposed policies would have affected LGBTQ refugees?
Only about one percent of refugees in need of resettlement are actually granted refuge. This group contains for example victims of torture, women headed households who are at risk, people with disabilities and to a certain extend LGBTQ people. As there isn’t a country surrounding Syria which protects LGBTQ people, it is critical for these people to be resettled to a safe third country. Even in Turkey, there was a report of a gay Syrian who was decapitated. From long waiting lists, to thorough biometric identification security checks, the obstacles refugees are facing are still high.
Once a country has indicated they accept a certain number of refugees, these persons will be registered accordingly. If the accepting country, in this case the United States, decides to stop the process, there will be no other option for the refugees but to stay put as other refugee-accepting have already reached their maximum. It’s heart-wrenching.
So far, the executive order was enjoined in the courts. There is still supposed to be a processing of refugees, but the pace and number has decreased.
Returning to domestic issues, Trump succeeded in appointing Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch, someone whose judicial track record is not particularly LGBTQ friendly. What impact will he, and the judicial branch as a whole, likely to have on the LGBTQ community? And are there currently any cases up for the Supreme Court that address LGBTQ issues?
Yes, actually last week they started processing the case "Masterpiece Cake Shop" which is a first amendment case about whether a bakery is allowed to refuse to serve a gay client because of the religious beliefs of the bakery owner. The court hasn’t decided to hear the case yet, and we don’t know if they are going to decide on it in the next conference. A positive answer to that question from the courts would put our civil rights laws and our values into jeopardy as it encourages unequal treatment based on beliefs. In my opinion, that’s not the definition of religious liberty in our country, it’s not a right to hurt others because of your beliefs.
Supreme Court Judge Gorsuch’s track record on religious liberties is very extreme. There has yet to be a circumstance where he ruled that an individual’s beliefs need to be respectful of somebody else’s. The Gavin Grim case, a decision about whether Title 9 protections [prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding] cover gender identity and whether schools can discriminate against someone because of their gender identity is still open.
In the U.S., LGBTQ people don’t have explicit protection in civil rights laws, but the courts have interpreted sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity in certain contexts. Ultimately, the courts played a major part in the expansion of LGBTQ rights and have served as a powerful tool against unwilling legislators, but on the other side, they are also able to severely curtail LGBTQ equality.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the large amount of federal court vacancies coming up. Trump is going to be able to shape the federal judiciary in a way that no other president in the past has.
We’ve been talking a lot about religious beliefs and how they affect the LGBTQ community. In Washington, we tend to focus on what’s going on at the federal level, while often neglecting policy developments at the state level. As you know, laws that protect or discriminate against LGBTQ people differ tremendously from state to state. How would you explain these differences? For example, in California, same-sex adoption, and second-parent adoption is legal, while Conversion Therapy is currently legal in Texas.
I think it is the make-up of state legislators. For example in Texas, district lines were drawn that suppress minority votes, in a manner that was found unconstitutional. There are extreme legislators who manipulated this system for their benefit. Being from North Carolina originally, I know this system. There is opposition to these injustices, but when voices of minorities are being suppressed, extreme people rise to the top. There is a lot of variety in culture and beliefs but also a lot of artificial manipulation. In Texas, for example they are currently discussing a bill that would prohibit Muslims, Jews and gay people from adopting kids if the adoption agency doesn’t agree with certain characteristics of the adoption family.
Moving away from policies and political decision-making, since 2015, the number of transgender people who have been victims of fatal violence in the United States increased dramatically, as have the numbers of hate crimes and incidences of discrimination against LGBTQ members. How do policy changes and the change of tone in the new administration affect public opinion?
There has been a drastic increase in violence. Under the last administration, we saw a lot of recognition and concrete steps taken towards police reform. In the case of domestic violence, for example there is a phenomenon in which LGBTQ victims of interpersonal violence are themselves arrested as the perpetrators, when in fact they are the victims. We know that there is a huge need for education reform in how law enforcement treats LGBTQ victims of violence. The current administration, especially Jeff Session, doesn’t show much concern in this matter. He has indicated to not be interested in police reform and, quite the opposite, is willing to give law enforcement enormous leeway in this area. If the federal government refuses to recognize that Trans children, for example, are deserving of protection, this sends a troubling message to the public.
Basically, it’s a mix of increasing hostility and violence toward the community and a lack of appropriate protection when searching for help.
Are there movements resisting the developments?
Actually, this year’s Pride Parade here in Washington D.C. is going to be a political protest, similar to the Women’s or Climate March. There will be people from all over the country coming to D.C., which is something that usually doesn’t occur. There are negative changes all over the country, noticeable in people’s communities and daily lives. This will be a great opportunity to organize, raise voices and to uniquely push back against this false narrative that Trump will not attack the rights of LGBTQ people.
In these movements, are there any new upcoming leaders or voices for the community, especially elected officials?
The LGBTQ Equality Caucus is very active in Congress and recently re-introduced the Equality Act. This act would amend the Civil Rights Act introducing comprehensive legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in seven critical areas of life: employment, education, housing, public accommodations, jury service, credit, and federal financial assistance. It was introduced by Congressman David Cicilline (Rhode Island) and Senator Jeff Merkley (Oregon), and has gained a lot of co-sponsors and bipartisan support. There has also been a growing effort to enlist members of the LGBT community to serve in government. To be able to change the latter, we need elected officials supporting the community.
That brings me to my last question. We have mainly analyzed developments that threaten the LGBTQ community under the new administration, but do you also see opportunities moving forward?
I think where change can happen these days, is at the local level. The recent developments have mobilized mayors, city councils and some states to advance LGBTQ equality in the meantime. They’re choosing not to wait for the federal government. The Center for American Progress will publish a guide including recommendations next month on how to take action. It details, what county executives and mayors can do through executive action to expand LGBT equality in their communities. We have stereotypes of San Francisco, New York and L.A., but small towns are actually leading the way in passing non-discrimination ordinances.
They notice the influence these changes have on their community. That’s where real change is going to happen now.
Interview took place on May 15th
This article is part of our dossier How LGBTI activists fight for their rights worldwide.
 a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birt