The president-elect might be “fine” with nationwide marriage equality and consider the issue “settled,” but make no mistake: the broader scope of LGBT rights is very much under threat from a Trump-Pence administration. While it’s been difficult to ascertain any specific policy goals from the former reality-TV star and his team of old-timey Washington insiders, those who’ve been paying attention should be well aware of the weapon the incoming administration plans to wield to strike down LGBT rights: a defense of so-called religious freedom.
The term itself, often interchangeably used with “religious liberty”, seems altruistic enough. We’re the United States of America, after all. Land of the free, home of the brave, founded by affluent white men fleeing religious persecution (who then proceeded to trample all over the religious and civil rights of the people who were already living here). So there is some dark sense of poetic justice in knowing that the blindingly white administration of president-elect Donald Trump will use the same kind of wolf-in-sheep’s clothing approach to restrict the rights of LGBT Americans. It’s a tactic that’s worked for powerful straight white men for centuries—why switch it up now?
Trump’s vague pledges on the campaign trail to defend “religious freedom” (while simultaneously uniting the nation “under one God”) helped drive white evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics to the polls in support of the Republican ticket at percentages the GOP hasn’t seen in years. Combined with vice-president-elect Mike Pence’s proud history of support for anti-LGBT, anti-women “religious freedom” legislation, it’s clear the incoming administration owes a debt to white religiously conservative America. Anyone unwilling to see that and brace for the ways that debt will be repaid is living under a rock.
In fact, in a terrifying National Review article published this week, writer Alexandra Desanctis lays out the ways Trump can “keep his promises” to religious conservatives now that he’s won the White House. While the to-do list includes right-wing staples like repealing the Affordable Care Act, limiting access to safe, legal abortion, and rescinding all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, nearly half the article is dedicated to how Trump can disrupt the LGBT-affirming policies implemented under Obama.
This prioritization of stripping away LGBT rights is one of the clearest indications yet that these defenses of religious liberty are nothing more than thinly-veiled attacks on LGBT people. Desanctis stresses that “Trump must also be willing to protect the conscience rights of religious citizens, especially within the health-care industry.” This includes, she explains, protecting the right for healthcare workers (presumably including those who work at hospitals and clinics that receive state or federal funds) to refuse to participate in care they consider “morally objectionable.”
Although Desanctis points to abortion and sterilization as examples of such objectionable care, the logic she’s advocating clearly creates space for doctors, nurses, and pharmacists to refuse care to transgender people, so long as they base their decision in “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Just a sentence later, Desanctis makes this connection clear, noting that Trump has promised to sign the odious First Amendment Defense Act sponsored by Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador. Although Rep. Labrador amended the legislation in an effort to protect all religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality, Desanctis frames the Act as one that would “protect from government discrimination those religious Americans who believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.”
She makes no mention of the religious Americans whose faith calls them to affirm the loving, committed relationships of same-sex couples, or the numerous faith traditions (many of them Christian) that bless and solemnize same-sex unions. It’s a telling exclusion, followed by a pointed attack on the Obama administration’s groundbreaking guidance that suggested transgender students be allowed to use the school facilities that correspond with their gender.
Desanctis suggests that Trump should “dissolve” the Department of Education policy that was celebrated by LGBT advocates nationwide when it was announced by the Education Department and Department of Justice in a one-two punch that also saw the DOJ file a federal civil rights lawsuit against North Carolina for its transphobic “bathroom bill” known as House Bill 2.
Rejecting the overwhelming consensus of social science and best practices advocated by experts who actually work with (and are) trans people, Desanctis sounds almost gleeful at the prospect of gutting Title IX protections for trans students. For the bulk of the past eight years, the Obama administration has been quietly, consistently (and successfully) arguing that existing civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex also cover discrimination based on gender identity. It’s a logical conclusion, given that most litigation surrounding anti-trans discrimination in employment and education boils down to the plaintiff’s alleged “failure” to adhere to societally imposed gender norms.
Desanctis betrays her own ideological preferences by setting up a false dichotomy between trans rights and “religious liberty.” She inaccurately portrays North Carolina’s HB2 as a simple law allowing “businesses to determine their own rules regarding bathrooms and [establishing] rules for bathrooms in government buildings.”
She does not mention the fact that under HB 2, trans women throughout the state are required to use the men’s bathroom in government buildings (which includes state universities, public parks, and other open spaces), or that the law prohibits counties from creating nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBT residents. She also neglects to mention that the law bars counties from setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s. (Isn’t there something in that old book about helping the poor? Apparently that doesn’t include paying them a living wage.)
By glossing over and misrepresenting the most hateful parts of HB2 and anti-LGBT religious liberty claims, Desanctis provides an important illustration of what progressive advocates for equality are up against in Trump’s America. The false equivalency that allowed millions of people to believe a career politician who sent some emails from an unofficial server was somehow more “crooked” than a self-proclaimed sexual predator who has settled countless lawsuits alleging racial discrimination and who regularly refuses to pay contractors for the work they performed, is about to kick itself into high gear.
Judging by the (ever-changing) makeup of Trump’s transition team and rumored cabinet appointments, the echo-chamber that was credited with swinging the election is likely to get even louder in the Oval Office. Trump has already surrounded himself with those sympathetic to the “victimized Christian” narrative Desanctis employs here to great effect.
The vice-president-elect has repeatedly described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and as a Senate candidate in 2000, suggested that funding be diverted from AIDS treatment and prevention efforts to instead fund state-sponsored conversion therapy. As recently as 2013, Pence made it a crime in Indiana for a same-sex couple to even apply for a marriage license.
A year later, he dug his heels in on the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, standing by the “license to discriminate” that he signed in a private ceremony with conservative religious leaders. Before ultimately amending the law slightly, he repeatedly claimed the national controversy over that law was a “perception problem,” not a problem stemming from state-sanctioned discrimination.
So even if Trump is historically tolerant of LGBT people (for a Republican president-elect, anyway), we’re kidding ourselves if we think his administration will do anything to protect our rights. And with Pence running the legislative end of things (not to mention a slew of anti-LGBT right-wing pundits being appointed to the transition team and considered for the cabinet), we can be certain that the measured, legally reasoned gains made under Obama will be among the first things on the new administration’s chopping block. After registering all the Muslims, of course.