In an ominous sign reminiscent of the George W. Bush era, many LGBT federal government employees contacted by the Washington Blade over the last two weeks declined to speak about the incoming Trump administration, saying they are “frightened” and “on guard,” raising concerns that workers will be forced back into the closet after eight years of a supportive Obama administration.
Representatives of eight of the 10 LGBT federal employee organizations that set up booths in D.C.’s 2016 Capital Pride Festival or marched in the Capital Pride Parade declined to talk to the Blade about the possible impact of the incoming Trump administration on LGBT federal workers.
Another five LGBT federal employees based in Washington agreed to speak to the Blade about their concerns over how LGBT federal workers may be treated under the Trump administration; all but one spoke on the condition that they not be identified.
“To be honest, people are concerned and there are people that are frightened,” said a gay administrator with a federal agency who asked not to be identified.
The administrator, who is an active member of his agency’s LGBT employee group, said he and his LGBT colleagues’ concerns aren’t directed as much toward President-elect Trump but instead are focused on the people Trump has named so far to head key federal agencies.
The gay administrator and other LGBT federal employees who spoke to the Blade joined several national LGBT rights organizations in expressing deep concern over Trump’s first round of high-level appointees, including his selection earlier this year of Gov. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) to be vice president.
Trump has said Pence, who has a longstanding record of opposition to LGBT rights, will serve as a high-level White House adviser on domestic issues, including the operation of key federal agencies and departments.
Other Trump nominees for cabinet level secretary positions also have records of embracing positions and policies hostile to LGBT rights. They include Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), whom Trump nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who’s been nominated to be U.S. Attorney General; and Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of Education.
“The big question that most of us are really worried about is whether Trump will let Pence dictate personnel policy,” said a gay attorney who works for another federal agency and who also asked not to be identified.
“I don’t think anybody thinks that Trump is personally a homophobe,” said the attorney. “But our biggest fear is he would be indifferent to any abusive policies that Mike Pence might propose and that he would give Mike Pence a blank check.”
Matthew Murphy, the only LGBT federal employee the Blade could find so far who agreed to speak openly, is a senior attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.
Murphy is also the founder and president of a government-wide LGBT employee organization called FEDQ.
As someone familiar with U.S. civil rights laws and civil service regulations protecting the rights of federal employees, Murphy said he is hopeful that a wide range of existing policies and federal employee protections would prevent the new administration from targeting LGBT employees solely on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“There is no guarantee that these couldn’t be changed,” he said. “But I’m optimistic. I think the ball is set in motion. It would be difficult to undo.”
Murphy pointed to the executive order issued by President Bill Clinton in 1998 that bans discrimination in the federal workforce on grounds of sexual orientation and a separate order issued by President Obama banning federal employee discrimination based on gender identity and expression.
Clinton issued another executive order prohibiting a government security clearance to be denied solely on grounds of someone’s sexual orientation.
During his presidential campaign Trump vowed to rescind many of Obama’s executive orders pertaining to other issues. And although Trump expressed some support for LGBT people in general during the campaign, political observers say his appointment of LGBT rights opponents to key positions raises questions about what he might do on LGBT-related matters.
Meanwhile, the EEOC, an independent federal agency in charge of enforcing U.S. civil rights laws, recently issued a legal opinion declaring that a provision in the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 that bans employment discrimination based on sex can be interpreted to ban employment discrimination against LGBT people.
The EEOC ruling is based on what it says is a legal interpretation that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are rooted in gender stereotyping of gay people and transgender people that falls under the purview of sex discrimination.
Murphy said this interpretation adds to the protections LGBT federal employees have against a hostile supervisor or agency head who might target them for discrimination.
“I think it will be kind of difficult to roll back all the progress that we’ve made,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”
He nevertheless said he understands the concerns LGBT federal employees have and why some would be reluctant to speak openly or speak at all to the Blade.
Making it easier to fire fed’l employees
The concerns raised by LGBT employees and representatives of LGBT federal employee organizations come at a time when Trump and representatives of his presidential transition team have said they plan to make unprecedented changes in the federal civil service system.
Among their proposed changes is an overhaul of current policies and regulations to make it easier to fire federal employees for “poor job performance” and to end the longtime assumption that federal workers could automatically keep their job “for life” until they choose to retire.
A spokesperson for Trump’s presidential transition team couldn’t immediately be reached to determine Trump’s position on LGBT federal employees and the LGBT employee groups that have formed in recent years in more than a dozen federal agencies and departments.
Gay Trump supporter Joseph Murray II, an attorney and conservative commentator who served as administrator of the pro-Trump Facebook page LGBTrump, said he doesn’t believe LGBT federal workers will be targeted under the Trump administration.
“I don’t think anybody who is LGBT has anything to fear from being LGBT,” Murray said. “I think our existing statutory protections against unlawful job discrimination will protect LGBT folks regardless of whoever is sitting in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Murray said it is well known that Trump has had numerous LGBT employees working for his businesses.
“I don’t think he cares about someone’s sexuality,” said Murray. “If you bring your ‘A’ game to the table and you produce results and you get things done I think that’s the only thing he’s interested in.”
According to Murray, Trump appointees like Pence and Sessions would be unlikely to target LGBT federal employees for discrimination because they know doing that would almost certainly result in widespread news media coverage.
Murray said “left-leaning” LGBT federal employees who seek to undermine the mission of the Trump administration might be targeted for termination. But he said any adverse action against them would be based on their ideology, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Laura Goulding, a spokesperson for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal workforce, said OPM in 2015 prepared and released a comprehensive document outlining the rights and procedures available for LGBT employees who believe they encounter workplace discrimination.
The document, Addressing Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination in Federal Civilian Employment: A Guide to Employment Rights, Protections, and Responsibilities, can be accessed at opm.gov.
Among other things, the guide says LGBT federal employees enjoy protection under the U.S. Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which was passed by Congress. The act prohibits discrimination based on conduct that does not adversely affect job performance, which has been interpreted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the OPM guide.
The guide says the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency that investigates complaints alleging prohibited personnel practices, has determined that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination constitute a prohibited personnel practice.
The LGBT employee groups that hosted booths at the Capital Pride festival in June or marched in the Pride parade one day before the festival and who declined to be interviewed for this story were affiliated with these federal agencies: Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Justice, National Counterterrorism Center, U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Census Bureau, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Kerri Hannan, president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, which represents LGBT State Department employees, released a one sentence statement to the Blade.
“We do not yet know to what degree LGBT rights abroad will be a priority under President-elect Trump’s administration, but are ready to work with his transition team and the new administration to address important issues that impact LGBT employees of foreign affairs agencies,” the statement says.
Murphy, the FEDQ president, said FEDQ was formed, in part, when he and other LGBT federal employees determined that the longstanding LGBT federal workers group Federal GLOBE was no longer functioning as an active advocacy group for LGBT federal workers.
Federal GLOBE was founded in 1988 by the late gay activist and Smithsonian Institution official Leonard Hirsch. It has been credited with helping to create and nurture LGBT employee groups in as many as 50 federal agencies over a period of 20 years.
The gay administrator of one of the federal agencies who spoke to the Blade on condition of not being identified said Federal Globe may have been a “victim of its own success.” He noted that beginning with the Clinton administration and continuing through the Obama administration, LGBT people saw major advances, including marriage equality, the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law banning gays from serving openly in the military, and the appointment of an unprecedented number of openly LGBT people to high-level positions in the Obama administration.
Murphy of FEDQ said it appeared that Federal GLOBE members in more recent years didn’t think the organization was needed any longer in light of all those advances.
But now, with the uncertainty of the Trump administration, FEDQ’s board of directors believes a government-wide LGBT employee group is needed more than ever, Murphy told the Blade.
“We have serious concerns and that’s why we think it’s important for LGBT employees now to kind of stand up and have their voices heard,” he said. “We think that’s really important.”
Murphy said one of FEDQ’s biggest projects right now is a campaign to encourage and assist the LGBT employee groups in the different federal agencies to become officially recognized as an employee group by those agencies. Doing that, he said, gives them official standing and would make it less likely that a hostile agency director could disband the LGBT groups or treat LGBT employees in a less than fair way.
“We feel now is the time for LGBT employees to be on guard,” he said. “We realize we can’t sit back and be comfortable.”
Murphy, who noted that FEDQ was founded in April 2013, said the group plans to “work hard to develop relationships within the Trump administration,” especially with the people the president-elect appoints to head and run federal agencies.
He said the group also plans to develop partnerships with religious organizations that are LGBT allies.