Cathy Renna, the communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, has worked in queer rights for nearly 30 years, through three administrations and countless setbacks. But nothing was quite like the transfer of power to the Trump administration. “It’s like having really great parents for most of your life,” she says, “and all of a sudden being adopted by people who hate you.”
The Obama era had been “the Golden Age of queer rights,” as Renna calls it. After decades of fighting with little payoff, there were significant breakthroughs: The Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell were overturned, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, and we were taking our first real steps in protecting LGBTQ rights at work and in health care. “Queer people finally felt like they were becoming full citizens of this country,” says Renna.
For people who came out during that “golden age” like I did, it felt unbearably lucky. We’d inherited the work of the generations before us — work that they’d fought, suffered, and died for — and got to stand on their shoulders, living openly and safely, at least relative to the lives that they’d had. Queer-rights organizations wondered if they’d soon become irrelevant, and some of us believed that maybe we could start building a life without having to keep one eye on the closet.
Through 2016, some had held out hope: Yes, the GOP platform was rabidly anti-LGBTQ — touting the importance of “traditional marriage” and religious freedom — but that wasn’t new, and by that point, two-thirds of Americans supported queer civil rights. But hope came crashing down on Inauguration Day, when, in a chilling signal of the administration’s intentions, every reference to LGBTQ people was wiped from the White House website.
With remarkable efficiency, the administration has embodied, emboldened, and enabled a vocal minority of Americans who believe that LGBTQ civil rights cannot coexist with their own. They have left no stone unturned, seeming to pay special attention to members of our community who are most vulnerable: They revoked the Obamacare provisions that protected LGBTQ people from discrimination in health care; banned trans people from the military; allowed homeless shelters to turn away trans people; and gave foster agencies permission to turn away queer couples. And that’s just the top of the list. In the executive branch alone, they’ve established anti-LGBTQ policies in 13 out of 15 departments.
The whiplash from the Obama years to now has been politically and psychologically devastating. The 14 million queer Americans who were just beginning to feel like a part of “we the people” are living under an administration that governs on the belief that we don’t belong in public life. They’ve taken our seats at the national table and handed them to once-fringe hate groups; they’ve invited bigots out of the closet, and tried to usher us back in. But it’s also been a harsh reminder that our rights and our safety were always this tenuous. We’ve won three key Supreme Court cases, but the queer protections that impacted our day-to-day lives predominantly existed in a patchwork of executive actions, which were dismantled by Trump as swiftly as they were put in place. These sweeping efforts have made this country demonstrably less safe for queer people, making next week’s election a matter of survival for the LGBTQ community. “We are living in a state of fear and oppression,” says Alphonso David of the Human Rights Campaign. “And it has real world implications for how people live today.”
Just weeks before the Covid crisis started, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was no longer enforcing Obama’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination policy. This meant that as we headed into the biggest health crisis since the AIDS epidemic, our country’s largest public health apparatus had carte blanche to turn queer people away.
As lockdowns started around the country, that rule change was devastating for queer elders. HHS oversees the Administration on Aging, an agency that basically exists to keep elders from having to enter assisted living, through programs like Meals on Wheels and in-home care. “LGBT older people are much more socially isolated than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts,” says Aaron Tax, director of advocacy for SAGE, one of the organizations that sued the HHS over this rule in March. “They’re twice as likely to be single, four times less likely to have children. And on top of that, many LGBT older people are disconnected from their families of origin.” In order to stay safe and isolated in the pandemic, older LGBTQ people needed the exact services that were now allowed to discriminate against them.
Imagine being an older gay man in rural Alabama, Tax says. Your state only deemed homosexuality legal in 2014. You’ve endured decades of discrimination and stigma, watched the federal government stand by as your friends and loved ones died from complications from AIDS, and now the Covid crisis has begun. Your local government is telling you to shelter-in-place and it’s your best chance to stay safe. But you also know that any one of those programs has permission to turn you away if they find out you’re gay. “A little fire goes up in your head, and you think, ‘Well, I can’t let this person into my house, I don’t know how they’re going to treat me,’” says Tax.
But chances are, advocates say, you won’t see reports of discrimination go up in any of these programs. People like that older man in rural Alabama will either go back into the closet — returning to survival instincts that we’d hoped to have left in the past, trying to conceal that they’re gay in order to get those services — or worse, they won’t get the services they need at all.
These are the quieter effects of discrimination, the ones that are harder to document or report. When the government gives Americans permission to discriminate against queer people, it tells us that we’re no longer safe in public life, and it fundamentally changes the way we move through the world: not being by your partner’s side at the doctor because the practice might refuse to give care to “people like you”; dropping their hand in a retail store because the government protects their religious freedoms over your rights; or if you’re this writer, not staying in an AirBnb with a MAGA flag hanging out front, because you don’t know how you’ll be treated when you walk in.
Code-switching has always been a tool for the LBGTQ community — trying not to sound “too gay” at work or use your hands the wrong way, or avoiding saying your partner’s name or gender — but for some, it feels safer to avoid certain parts of public life entirely, especially under Trump. This is particularly true for trans Americans, who are especially vulnerable when the government refuses to issue them IDs or paperwork that match their name and gender identity, effectively outing them by default. Due to discrimination — or fear of it — 28 percent of transgender Americans reported avoiding necessary medical care this year.
Perhaps the administration’s most insidious attack, though, has been the sustained attempt to omit any reference to queer people in the federal government. Trump denied a proposal to add questions to the 2020 census about LGBTQ Americans, banned the word “transgender” from the CDC, removed any reference to LGBTQ people in USAID’s gender policy, and stopped collecting information about queer people in federal reports, like the HHS Survey of Older Adults, and the annual reviews for the Centers for Independent Living, which evaluate the needs of programs for people with disabilities.
It’s a sort of psychological warfare. “All of the other issues seem fairly tangible, right?,” says David of the Human Rights Campaign. “You don’t have access to housing, [you] don’t have access to employment. But this is saying that we don’t exist, that we don’t have value, we don’t have dignity, and we should go back into our silence. It’s hard to quantify, but very, very real.”
Though the administration is making absurd attempts in the run-up to the election to convince much-needed voters that Trump is “the most pro-gay president in American history“ — trotting out Tiffany Trump to a “Trump Pride” event to tout her gay “best friends” — there is no hiding that homophobia and transphobia are in the DNA of the Trump presidency. And the impact of this agenda has been profound. In 2019, groups that vilify the LGBTQ community were the fastest growing sector among hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Every year since 2017, we’ve seen an uptick in discrimination and violence,” says David. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence have really been fueling the flame and perpetuating stigma and discrimination. That leads to violence. We are on track to have more transgender people killed in this country than any other year since we’ve been tracking the numbers.”
And whether the Trump administration knows it or not, even policies that aren’t directed at the LGBTQ community can have an outsized impact on it. One in five LGBTQ people lives in poverty — which is double the rate of the general population — making them especially dependent upon government programs like food stamps. Queer people are more likely to have preexisting conditions — one in four queer Latinx men will contract HIV in their lifetime, and one in two queer black men — and are twice as likely to not have access to health care. As the Trump administration tried to end the DACA program, which created a path to citizenship for immigrants brought here as minors, advocates discovered that an estimated 10 percent of eligible DACA applicants identify as LGBT. “Our community is so diverse,” says Renna, “when you talk about the wall, or the Muslim ban, you’re talking about us.”
We can take small comfort that Trump, who had full control of Congress for only the first half of his term, hasn’t been able to sign any anti-LGBTQ legislation into law. He has overwhelmingly implemented his agenda through the executive branch, which means a new administration would have the chance to undo it over time. But Trump will have a lasting impact in the judiciary, where he has appointed more than 200 federal judges, including three Supreme Court Justices, and one in three have a “deep history of anti-LGBTQ advocacy,” according to LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal.
Trump’s fingerprints all over the judicial branch will hurt. The most substantial advances in LGBTQ rights have been made through the courts: Homosexuality was still illegal in 14 states until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. In 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage. And earlier this year, in Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court found that queer people are constitutionally protected from discrimination in the workplace.
But it’s a patchwork of protections, with gaping holes — “imagine being able to be protected at work, but you walk home or you go to a store to purchase something, and you don’t have those same protections,” says David. Any attempts to fill in those gaps through the courts face an impossible hurdle with Trump’s new court. Justice Brett Kavanaugh has a long history of siding with religious freedom over LGBTQ civil rights, and constitutional “originalists” like Amy Coney Barrett and Clarence Thomas will be hard pressed to find queer rights in their literal reading of the 230-year-old document. In fact, Thomas joined the dissent in Lawrence v. Texas.
But even the landmark cases we’ve already won are vulnerable amid a newly conservative judiciary. The 2016 and 2020 Republican platform plainly called for Obergefell to be overturned, and Justices Alito and Thomas recently stated their eagerness to do just that. Most of our protections are based in the “right to privacy” — a right that was never explicitly stated in the Constitution, and therefore an argument that carries little weight with the court’s originalists. And even if they aren’t given an opportunity to overturn any of these cases, they can diminish their power — chipping away from the edges, in the same way that Roe v. Wade has been weakened — until we have rights that are anything but equal. Just the day after the election, the newly stacked Supreme Court will decide whether or not it’s constitutional for a tax-payer funded foster agency to reject LGBTQ parents.
Between the rise in hate crimes, loss of access to services, and the psychological impact of being pushed back into the closet, Tuesday’s election is a matter of survival for so many members of the queer community. Kierra Johnson, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, has been amplifying that call to action all year. “Our wins are fragile if we don’t have a base of people that is continuously holding decision makers accountable,” she says. Right now, the Task Force is building that base through their “Queer the Vote” campaign. Half of queer registered voters didn’t turn out in 2016, and 2 million weren’t even registered. By some estimates, if we’d shown up in full force in just two states, we would have had a different president.
So Johnson’s expanding the base, proving that intersectionality can be one of our greatest strengths, like the coalition her organization joined to restore voting rights to felons in Florida. “People thought it was a solidarity campaign, but 40 percent of the women sitting in Florida prisons identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer,” she says. “By engaging that way, we can redefine what a ‘queer issue’ is.”
If that coalition and American voters successfully make Trump a one-term president, we could pull the American government back in line with the values that most Americans already hold. And make our progress less fragile. A Biden administration could have the power to do the one thing that would protect queer Americans from another case of whiplash, between a “golden age” and the dark ages: sign legislation passed by Congress that proactively affirms protections for queer people, rather than relies on a patchwork of legal interpretations that begs the courts to find our rights in preexisting texts. A new Supreme Court presents barriers that we have yet to understand, but if we elect him, Biden has committed to passing such a bill. “It isn’t as far away as some might think,” says Johnson, at least compared to the 50-year fight that’s gotten us where we are today. “I believe it will happen in my lifetime.”
When Renna talks about the way forward, she has genuine hope. For a lot of the community, people who lived through family rejection, stigmatization, government oppression, she says, they’re reliving that trauma now. But she works with young queer people all around the country, including her own daughter, who are out and active members of the community. “For these kids, who went through puberty during the Obama years, during the Golden Age of queer rights,” she says. “Their first impulse is, ‘What is wrong with you all?’ They’re fired up, and they want to make change happen.”