President Donald Trump’s decision to bar transgender Americans from serving in the military is ammunition for gay rights activists who have long doubted the sincerity of his professed support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
“There had been a narrative out there, which is that Donald Trump isn’t personally anti-LGBT and you could blame other members of his administration for what was happening,” said James Esseks, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project. “You can’t believe that narrative after today. This is the president himself.”
Trump prompted the quick rebuke from advocacy organizations when he announced on Twitter early Wednesday that the military would reverse an Obama administration decision to allow transgender troops to serve openly. Instead, they will now be banned from serving “in any capacity,” he said.
The Human Rights Campaign’s president, Chad Griffin, issued a statement describing the move as “the latest effort by Trump and Mike Pence to undo our progress and drag LGBTQ people back into the closet by using our lives as political pawns.”
Joshua Block, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, described Trump as a “commander-in chief who rejects [the] basic humanity” of transgender people in a statement condemning the decision.
Discord between the Republican Party and gay rights activists, who generally align with Democrats on policy, is not new. But not too long ago, there were signs that Trump could be the most gay-friendly Republican president in American history.
As a candidate, he held up a rainbow pride flag — albeit upside down — onstage at a campaign rally. He had said positive things about gay rights earlier in his career. Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and Trump’s most prominent Silicon Valley donor, declared in his Republican National Convention speech that he was proud to be gay and a Republican. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, now a top White House adviser, has spoken warmly toward LGBT people.
Trump even openly courted the support of LGBT voters, saying that he would be more supportive of them than Hillary Clinton because of his hard-line immigration stance. “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs,” he tweeted in June 2016.
Those statements did little to endear Trump to gay rights activists, who pointed to the GOP’s conservative platform and Trump’s running-mate pick of Pence — who had championed a heavily criticized religious-liberty bill as governor of Indiana — as signs that his apparent embrace of LGBT rights was insincere. They overwhelmingly backed Clinton in the election.
But some gay Republicans had looked to Trump’s more moderate rhetoric as a hopeful sign that the party was following public opinion and moving toward accepting LGBT rights.
The board of the Log Cabin Republicans, the country’s largest group of LGBT Republicans, voted against endorsing Trump before the election last year, citing concerns over Trump’s inconsistencies as a candidate.
But the vote was close, and Gregory T. Angelo, the group’s president, said at the time that gay Republicans had been encouraged by Trump’s primary win because it “prove[s] a lesson to anyone in the Republican Party that you need not toe an anti-LGBT line in order to win.”
“Could Donald Trump be the most pro-LGBT president that this country has ever had? He might well be,” Angelo said at the time.
On Wednesday, Angelo issued a statement condemning the transgender troop ban on behalf of the group. Trump’s statement, Angelo said, “does a disservice to transgender military personnel and reintroduces the same hurtful stereotypes conjured when openly gay men and women were barred from service during the military’s ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ era.“
As recently as Tuesday, the Log Cabin Republicans had tweeted a video of Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s new communications director, praising Trump as “the first American president in U.S. history that enters the White House with a pro-gay rights stance.”
On some points, Trump remains to the left of his party on LGBT issues, like same-sex marriage, which he described as “settled” law and something he was “fine with” shortly after the election. But the ban on transgender service members, and other decisions by the administration, like its failure to recognize June as Pride Month, seem to contradict that.
Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, asserted Wednesday that Trump’s actions in office had shown that the president’s claims to support LGBT rights were always “alternative facts.”
Any hope that Trump would be more supportive of LGBT rights in office because of his statements on the campaign trail, she said, was “wishful thinking at best or complete disregard for the facts at the worst,” given his history of attacking groups like Muslims and his rhetoric toward women.
“At the end of the day, show me who you are through your actions, not your words,” McBride said.
The ban on transgender service members is one of several Trump administration policies that are inconsistent with the president’s claims to support LGBT rights, she said. She cited the Department of Education decision to rescind an Obama-era guidance directing schools to allow transgender children to use the bathroom of their choice, as well as some of Trump’s appointments, including Neil Gorsuch, his conservative pick for the Supreme Court.
And now, McBride said, “he’s quite literally threatened the careers of more than 15,000 active transgender service members.”
The ACLU is prepared to mount a legal challenge to the ban on transgender service members if the Department of Defense formally moves to adopt it, Esseks said.
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