Amid mixed messages, LGBT community strains to grasp Trump’s views

The White House put on a light show the night that the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, and effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The LGBT community, which in recent years has made strides in marriage equality and workplace protections, is struggling to understand how its members will fare under President Donald Trump’s administration.

That is largely because they are not hearing a clear message from the new administration, they said.

Trump made LGBT groups anxious during his election campaign in which he promised to appoint a Supreme Court justice who would vote to reverse the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

But after a month in office, Trump has been more eager to change immigration and health care than LGBT rights.
Caught between Trump’s campaign promises to undo years of progress and Trump’s claims that as president he will “protect the [LGBT] community from violence and oppression,” Bet Mishpachah and other Jewish LGBT groups are hypervigilant, uncertain about how the new administration will erode their legal gains.

One of Trump’s promises was to undo every executive order former President Barack Obama signed. On Jan. 30, Trump broke that promise announcing he would maintain Obama’s executive order that strengthened workplace rights for LGBT individuals.

“President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, just as he was throughout the election,” a White House statement said.

Obama’s July 2014 executive order prohibited discrimination in the civilian federal workforce on the basis of gender identity and in hiring federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, the decision to uphold Obama’s executive order on LGBT workplace protections did not surprise Bet Mishpachah Rabbi Laurie Green.

Trump “has his priorities, and he has the things he wants to make waves over and things he isn’t wanting make waves over,” Green said. “I wasn’t expecting sexual orientation workplace protections to be the number one place where he put his rollback efforts.”

But Trump’s decision did not inspire confidence among congregants, either.

“I don’t think we should be complacent just because we’re told verbally that” the order will not be overturned, said member Stuart Sotsky.

Most people interviewed for this story said they are unsure about where Trump stands on LGBT rights.

“I don’t think [Trump] came in with an agenda with regards to the LGBT community,” said congregation President David Schwarz. “The trouble is that he’s surrounded himself with a lot of people who are social conservatives.”

Among those social conservatives is Vice President Mike Pence who has said gay couples signal “societal collapse,” opposed laws prohibiting workplace discrimination against LGBT people and rejected the Obama administration’s directive on transgender bathrooms, Time reported last July.

During the campaign, Trump said he would welcome Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, reality television star and former Olympian who competed as Bruce Jenner, to use whichever bathroom she chooses at Trump Tower.

This contradiction between Trump’s actions and his advisers’ views continues to set the LGBT community on edge.
“I don’t know the extent to which the president himself has strong feelings one way or another” about LGBT rights, said Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a Boston-based organization that advocates for LGBT equality in Jewish life.

But “we know these are not rights that are sacrosanct to him and, depending on who he is talking to, he has made dramatic statements to undo marriage equality and turn back progress that we have made on LGBT issues more broadly,” she said.

The White House statement to protect the LGBT community stands in contrast to Trump’s pledge to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will vote to reverse Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Adding to the uncertainty is that the day after pledging to maintain the executive order, Trump nominated federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch — whose views on marriage equality, and LGBT rights more broadly, have remained as cloudy and mysterious as the president’s — to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Antonin Scalia, who died last year.

Friends of Gorsuch insisted in a New York Times story that the judge’s views on gay rights were not as easy to pigeonhole as those of Scalia, who accused the Supreme Court of being swayed by the “homosexual agenda.”

Phil Berg, a Manhattan lawyer, told The New York Times that his friend and former Harvard classmate Gorsuch “did not skip a beat” in offering support when Berg told Gorsuch that he was gay.

But Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow pointed to decisions Gorsuch made that suggested a “troubling record on LGBTQ issues.” She cited the case Kastl v. Maricopa County Community College District, in which Gorsuch joined in an opinion that ruled against a transgender woman who alleged employment discrimination.

Gorsuch has never ruled on a case related to same-sex marriage leaving it unclear whether he would seek to reverse Obergefell v. Hodges if given the opportunity.

Robbie Medwed, an Atlanta-based LGBT activist who has lobbied against anti-LGBT legislation in Georgia, said he is torn on Gorsuch.

“He’s not been great for LGBT people in the past,” he said. “But [Gorsuch] seems to be a decently smart jurist and judge. He doesn’t keep me up at night the same way other people do.”

Medwed is far from idle. He is lobbying against a bill pushed by his local legislators, emboldened by Trump’s actions, to add a special notation on Georgia driver’s licenses of immigrants and permanent residents.

Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director at the Atlanta-based Sojourn, a Jewish LGBT advocacy organization focused on Southern states, said she is noticing much more activity on Sojourn’s phone lines.

“What fascinated me was the day after the election, five [local] rabbis contacted me to say how they understood how scary this time could be for LGBT community, and they wanted to issue their support,” she said.

Back at Bet Mishpachah, Rabbi Laurie Green said that whatever people do in response to Trump, they need to break out of their “echo chambers.”

Said Green: “We did a program with the LGBT Muslim community, but as LGBT people we could just keep talking to LBGT people. It doesn’t get us out there talking to the rest of the country.”

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