The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, who cast himself as pro-LGBT, is now under fire from Democrats for rolling back protections

LGBT activists hold a “We Will Not Be Erased” rally in front of the White House in October. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Trump, who appeared to break with Republican orthodoxy in 2016 by pledging to be a “real friend” of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans, is facing fresh attacks from Democrats and advocates who say his administration has instead become their worst enemy.

Trump and his aides have issued a wave of regulations, executive orders, legal briefs and personnel appointments aimed at reversing large parts of the Obama administration’s civil rights agenda, winning plaudits from religious conservatives who form the bedrock of Trump’s political support.

But the moves also put Trump at odds with growing popular support for expanding legal protections to more LGBT Americans, and the issue has become a rallying point among Democrats in the 2020 presidential race.

“We have a president who is a homophobe,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote last month on Facebook, linking to a report about the Trump administration’s plan to make it easier for adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples.

The next day, Sanders returned to Facebook to criticize the administration for proposing regulations rolling back Obama-era protections for transgender people in the health-care system and in housing.

“We will not allow Trump to divide us — our job must be to stand with the transgender community,” he wrote.

Sanders was part of a growing chorus of Democratic presidential candidates who are taking on Trump over his record on LGBT issues, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The contrast is especially stark given the large field of Democratic candidates, which includes the first openly gay presidential contender, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The Trump administration has sided against LGBT activists on a host of issues over the past two years, including banning transgender troops from serving in the military and arguing in court that civil rights laws to do not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Human Rights Campaign, a top advocacy group for LGBT issues, has created a 16-page document outlining administration actions that it says are hostile to LGBT Americans.

Recent polls have found that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage and allowing transgender troops to serve in the military. Trump’s record on LGBT issues could harm his bid for reelection because many of his policies are out of step with a growing number of moderate suburban voters, said Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.

“In 2016, candidate Trump looked more moderate on this issue,” Walter said. “His administration, however, has been anything but moderate — especially on transgender issues.”

But Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Democrats are trying to make a name for themselves in a crowded primary by attacking Trump.

“Like his peers, Bernie Sanders is on a desperate quest to increase his standing in the Democrat primary and is therefore maligning President Trump with baseless smears yet again,” she said in a statement. “President Trump believes in the human dignity of all while simultaneously respecting religious freedom. He has consistently supported both equality and liberty as Democrats continue their ruthless smear campaign and failed, recycled attacks from 2016.”

The president’s policies, many of which are cast within the context of protecting religious freedom, have been hailed by conservatives who say Trump is standing up for traditional values.

After the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a proposed rule to reverse an Obama-era regulation extending health-care protections to transgender Americans last month , Family Research Council President Tony Perkins praised the move.

“Sex is not subjective, it is an objective biological reality,” he said in a statement. “The rule proposed today helps protect health care providers from being forced to participate in and perform services that substantially violate their consciences.”

So far, Trump himself has largely been silent on much of his LGBT record. He has not responded to Democrats’ attacks and has not personally championed his administration’s policy push as he has on other issues, such as immigration. 

When asked by a reporter recently whether doctors should be forced to perform gender reassignment surgeries — a possibility dismissed by LGBT advocates as unlikely — Trump’s answer was brief and noncommittal.

“We’re going to see,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Trump is also expected to let June pass for a third time this year without acknowledging LGBT Americans as part of Pride Month, according to David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign.

When he campaigned for president in 2016, Trump made overtures to the LGBT community that were at the time unprecedented in Republican presidential politics.

He told NBC’s “Today” show that Caitlyn Jenner could use any bathroom in Trump Tower, breaking with other Republican leaders who backed so-called “bathroom bills” requiring transgender Americans to use the bathroom associated with their biological gender at birth. In nationally televised remarks during the Republican National Convention, Trump referenced a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando and became the first GOP nominee to mention “our LGBTQ community” during his acceptance speech.

“As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” he said. 

But since taking office, Trump has won praise from Christian conservatives by supporting policies that LGBT activists oppose.

“For us Christians, this president has been the most Christian-friendly president in my lifetime,” Franklin Graham, an evangelical leader, said Tuesday on Perkins’s radio show, “Washington Watch.”

Graham joined with more than 250 other Christian leaders recently to declare June 2 a special day of prayer for Trump. 

Buttigieg, who is Christian, has repeatedly criticized Trump and Vice President Pence for their approach to LGBT issues. At a May 17 event in Iowa, he accused the Trump administration of waging a “war on trans Americans.”

“Every policy turn we’ve seen out of this administration has been hostile to LGBTQ people,” Buttigieg said.

Asked about Buttigieg’s marriage to another man, Trump said earlier this month on Fox News that he was “absolutely fine” with it.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “I think that’s something that perhaps some people will have a problem with; I have no problem with it whatsoever.”

The White House highlighted Trump’s favorable views toward same-sex marriage and blamed “radical left” Democrats for attacking the president over his support of religious freedom.

“President Donald Trump is the first U.S. President to favor same-sex marriage when he was sworn in, absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind, and supports the equal treatment of all,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

But Trump’s record on LGBT issues could overshadow his more moderate public comments on same-sex marriage as voters assess his presidency during the 2020 race, Walter said. 

“His handling of this issue is one more reason why he is so unpopular with the kinds of suburban swing voters that at one time supported Republicans,” she said. “Combine this with his support for more abortion restrictions and the administration’s treatment and policy toward separating refugee children and families on the border, and you have a record that repels suburban women.”

LGBT activists will be spending much of the next 18 months making voters aware of that record, said Charlotte Clymer, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. 

“A lot of Americans, after same-sex marriage was legalized, kind of entered a sense of complacency,” Clymer said. “We think the president is giving us something that will be a useful motivator to win suburban voters and swing voters.”