Do you remember the time in March 2017, when the Trump administration sent the Center for Family and Human Rights—a Southern Poverty Law Center–designated anti-LGBTQ hate group that supports criminalizing queerness—to represent this country at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women? I’m ashamed to say that I’d forgotten until I was doing research for this article. At the time, the decision alarmed activists, advocacy groups, and just normal LGBTQ people hoping to live with peace of mind about their rights and workplace protections. It felt like a harbinger of homophobic and transphobic cruelty to come.
By that time, the administration had already placed a target on the backs of transgender students, rescinding the Obama-era nondiscrimination protections that guaranteed these students’ rights to use the bathroom in which they felt most comfortable. The administration had also already scrubbed the White House website of any mentions of LGBTQ rights.
Amid all the other abuses and misdeeds under Donald Trump, it was easy to overlook the cumulative effects of these actions. The mainstream of American political discourse seemed to have absorbed the idea that gay and lesbian rights had already been settled by the Supreme Court with marriage equality becoming the law of the land in 2015, and that trans rights were steadily advancing—that America had secured a foothold on the right side of history. But the Trump administration saw things very differently. Even as highly visible right-wing projects like the border wall moved along in fits and starts, subject to the president’s disorganization and lack of focus, the executive branch was pursuing a consistent, ruthless four-year assault on the health, safety, and security of queer and trans people, bent on reversing the gains LGBTQ Americans had made.
It seems unlikely that more than a modicum of 2016 voters—presumably Caitlyn Jenner and the Log Cabin Republicans—were convinced of Trump’s loyalty to the gays by his waving, at a campaign event, of a rainbow flag adorned with a chicken-scratch handwritten statement: “LGBTs for TRUMP.” The candidate, and his party, had made their real position clear with a 2016 platform (which would later become its 2020 platform) explicitly opposed to LGBTQ rights, including the Supreme Court–settled right to marry. On the campaign trail, Trump further signaled his intentions when he added virulent homophobe Mike Pence to the ticket.
But those animosities were rarely in the foreground of the 2016 race. At the time, I remember having a difficult time actually articulating just how much Pence hated us; though his career is marked by queerphobic language and policy decisions, he mostly stuck with dog whistles on the campaign trail.
Then Trump took office, and a relentless anti-gay and distinctly anti-trans agenda became a low hum beneath the administration’s other human rights abuses. While Trump tweeted vitriol about immigrants, Black members of Congress, and Muslims (just to a name a few targets), the departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Education worked to quietly gut LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, and punish queer and trans people at home and abroad for simply being queer and trans. During Trump’s four years in office, he nominated anti-LGBTQ judges to lifetime appointments while his administration attempted to bar LGBTQ people from public institutions and codify the right to discriminate against us on “religious” grounds.
Among the most heinous anti-LGBTQ policies the Trump administration pursued were its attempts to make transgender people’s lives miserable. In April 2017, the Trump administration dropped the Obama-era challenge to the notorious bathroom bill HB2 in North Carolina. It’s important to recall that HB2 was perceived as so hateful at the time that it launched widespread boycotts of events and tourism to North Carolina, actions that could, by some estimates, cost the Tar Heel State $3.76 billion by 2029. Though the cited reason for dropping the challenge was the fact that HB2 had already been partially repealed (with some of the most hateful aspects of the bill removed), former Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the transphobic bill into law in 2016, celebrated the Trump administration’s decision. A few months later, Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education closed two major civil rights cases related to trans students and even withdrew findings from an Ohio case that asserted a trans student had been subject to discrimination and denied access to the appropriate bathroom. The Department of Education’s letter announcing its closure of this long-running case did not mention how the plaintiff was persistently misgendered and harassed by classmates and teachers alike.
While we all have gotten to know the more subtle bigotry of Amy Coney Barrett, many of Trump’s other nominees to the federal bench have been openly hateful in both their words and actions. In July 2017, Trump nominated Republican state Sen. Mark Norris to serve as a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Mark Norris is so homophobic that after Nashville passed a law that barred city contractors from discriminating against someone just because they’re gay or trans, Norris supported a state law that would block any city in Tennessee from passing a law like Nashville’s.
In October 2017, Vice revealed the unflinching racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia of Trump’s nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Jeff Mateer. In a speech from just two years prior, Mateer can be heard saying, “I attend a Baptist church. We discriminate, alright. On the basis of sexual orientation, we discriminate.” He also decried attempts to end conversion therapy and argued that trans kids existing is a part of “Satan’s plan.” The White House withdrew Mateer’s nomination after the controversy, which only underscored just how hateful someone had to be for this administration to briefly pause its anti-LGBTQ agenda. The act of nominating extreme and radically anti-LGBTQ people to the federal bench remained a common, and infuriating, political move throughout the entire Trump presidency.
The Trump administration began the second year in its assault on queer people with the Department of Health and Human Services opening a “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” within its Office for Civil Rights. The initiative sought to assist religiously oriented health care facilities in their attempts to deny care to LGBTQ individuals on the basis of their faith or other moral reasons. It also covered providers who wanted to be able to legally deny abortions. When you consider how crucial access to excellent health care can be for literally lifesaving gender transition and queer family-making, this division’s aims only become more and more sinister.
The year wore on, and additional policies were enacted to make LGBTQ people’s lives more precarious, barring us from public institutions, and stripping us of essential protections. March 2018 brought the announcement of exactly how the administration would go about banning trans people from serving in the military, a policy goal Trump tweeted out in summer 2017. With its clarification around banning only people who “require or have undergone gender transition,” Trump’s plan cast trans people’s essential health care as burdensome and pathologized the very existence of noncis people.
In federal prisons, places already considered to be inherently dangerous and hostile to queer people, Trump’s DOJ stripped trans people of the little protection they had, adjusting its manual on how to treat incarcerated trans people with the assertion that inmates should be placed in facilities that align with their sex assigned at birth. Trans women housed in men’s prisons are more likely to face brutal sexual violence than incarcerated cis people. For some trans women, incarceration with cisgender men is a death sentence.
Trump’s monstrous immigration policies also proved to be devastating for LGBTQ people seeking asylum. In June 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that essentially rendered it impossible for refugees to gain entry into this country if their reason for doing so was violence at the hands of gangs or a domestic partner. Referring to these assaults as “private violence,” Sessions’ ruling disproportionately affected asylum-seekers who are women, especially trans women, as they’re more likely to migrate to escape this kind of violence. At the time of the ruling, the director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, Harper Jean Tobin, said that “untold numbers of LGBTQ migrants” could face fatal consequences because of this decision. Even after Sessions resigned, the administration continued its warpath against queer immigrants with rules that would only make it more challenging for someone to be granted entry via a gender-based claim.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, the administration persisted in its attacks on queer civil rights even amid impeachment, potential war with Iran, a pandemic that’s taken the lives of more than 250,000 Americans, and the most intense racial reckoning since the 1960s. It allowed a taxpayer-funded foster care center in South Carolina to discriminate on religious grounds, hoping to set a precedent that would allow other facilities to refuse to work with potential parents who happen to be queer. The Department of Health and Human Services continued to encourage health care providers to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans. The Department of Education declared trans high schoolers playing sports with other teens of their gender identity to be a Title IX violation. The Department of Housing and Urban Development even proposed a rule that would allow single-sex homeless shelters to refuse to help trans people, in the middle of a pandemic-induced recession and unemployment crisis.
The vicious anti-LGBTQ policies implemented by the Trump administration will take years (or even decades) to undo. While Joe Biden has addressed how brutal these four years have been for queer and trans people in the United States, especially Black trans women, the vague policies on his website are not going to be enough. The 15,000 people in New York City who marched for Black trans lives weren’t seeking the tepid goal of “equality for all”; they took to the streets to show, in the words of journalist and activist Raquel Willis, “Black trans power” and to demand queer justice. Queer and trans kids need guaranteed safety in their schools and a secure, affirming roof over their heads, not just Biden’s “support.” Queer and trans people need explicit and stringent workplace protections, easily accessible health care, and deliberate actions to prevent violence, not just “fair treatment … in the criminal justice system,” and “protect[ion] from discrimination.”