Things could have been worse for the gay rights community under a Republican president. President Trump tried to court them during the campaign, and he seemed to go out of his way to avoid limiting their rights when he signed an executive order underscoring religious freedom.
That dynamic changed drastically Wednesday. Trump announced on Twitter an unequivocal ban on transgender people serving in the military, reversing a groundbreaking decision set in motion by the Obama administration.
It's a major attack by the president on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and advocates say it's a big one. While the White House says the intent is to improve military readiness and is not based in politics, the message the LGBT community is hearing from the president is this: Transgender people are other, are different, are too costly to be treated like the rest of America.
The Trump administration had already revoked federal guidelines on transgender student rights in February. If anyone in the gay community still held out hope that Trump would live up to his pro-LGBT campaign rhetoric (and not-as-anti-LGBT presidency), Trump just eviscerated that.
The gay rights community is by no means a fan of Trump. But the skepticism wasn't universal. Literally 24 hours ago, this was a headline in the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner: “Trump welcomes in Republican LGBT advocates.” The first paragraph reads:
“Long an outcast in their own party, Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's leading center-right LGBT advocacy group, is being welcomed by Team Trump, and Republicans as a result.”
That optimism will be hard to square now.
“There is no gloss, no makeup, no lipstick on any of this,” said Bob Witeck, a Washington-based consultant to businesses and nonprofit organizations on LGBT issues. “This is a full-frontal attack.”
It's also a politically potent one. Transgender policy is the tip of the spear in the gay rights battle.
North Carolina became a national battlefield in 2016 for limiting what public restrooms transgender people can use. Texas is in the process of trying to pass a similar law. Closing the door on transgender people is akin to closing the door on the entire LGBT community, Witeck said.
Trump's action Wednesday is an about-face from his repeated and off-brand-for-Republicans attempts to reach out to the community during the campaign.
In his nominating speech at the Republican convention, Trump mentioned gay rights and went out of his way to emphasize how he might change the Republican Party's perception of the issue. “As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said,” Trump went off script to say to the crowd.
He tweeted stuff like this:
His overtures didn't work. Exit polls show LGBT voters were the only demographic group to increase their support for Clinton over President Barack Obama four years ago.
And the Human Rights Campaign just launched a $26 million investment to make the gay rights community a progressive heavyweight in the 2018 elections and in 2020.
“The president's attacks on our community — and so many minority communities — has served to be, in many ways, a great awakening of our democracy,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Gay rights advocates think they have potential to make a big difference politically, perhaps in a way other progressive groups haven't.
No modern social issue has morphed public opinion so quickly as gay rights. Polls leading up to the Supreme Court's 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage showed more adults identifying as LGBT (an estimated 10 million) and record support for same-sex marriage. A May Gallup poll found that 64 percent of respondents think it should be legal.
But transgender rights have not made as much inroad in public opinion as rights for the rest of the gay community.
A February PRRI survey found 64 percent of Americans said there is a lot of discrimination against transgender people. But a March Quinnipiac University poll found that 42 percent of registered voters said it would make no difference if there were more acceptance for transgender people.
If this is an unequivocal loss for the LGBT community, it's a win for conservative, faith-focused groups like the Family Research Council.
Trump may have given LGBT advocates rocket fuel to be more politically active, Witeck said. He didn't just reverse a landmark Obama-era policy on gay rights, he reversed any remaining hope that he'd be one of the first gay-friendly (or not gay-unfriendly) Republican presidents. He left no nuance about where his loyalties stand: Not with the LGBT community, at least not anymore.
“We can now wrap a campaign around an overt Trump policy,” Witeck said. “It lifts the curtain, it reveals the truth about the administration that many LGBT people have always felt.”