Social conservative advocates and groups seeking to undermine LGBT rights — once thought to be waning in influence — appear to have experienced a resurgence with President Trump in the White House.
The growing power of anti-LGBT groups, such as the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, can be seen in the policies enacted by Trump against the LGBT community as well as the close interaction between social conservatives and his administration.
Prior to his August vacation, Trump announced his intent to ban transgender people from the U.S. military “in any capacity,” unilaterally instituting the anti-LGBT policy after the U.S. House — under Republican control, no less — rejected a narrower measure to undermine transgender service by denying military funds for transition-related health care.
Trump’s declaration came after intense lobbying by anti-LGBT lawmakers and groups, who threatened to withhold support from major defense spending legislation unless the White House acted. That bill includes funds for Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement after Trump’s announcement on transgender service his organization would withdraw its opposition to border wall payments.
“Now that we are assured that the Defense Department has its fiscal priorities in order, Family Research Council withdraws our opposition to increasing the budget of the Department of Defense through the ‘Make America Secure Appropriations Act’ and looks forward to seeing that legislation pass,” Perkins said.
Although Trump — despite entreaties from social conservatives — hasn’t signed an executive order circulating among federal agencies and advocacy groups that would enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom,” he did pen his name to a directive empowering U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue guidance ensuring religious liberty.
Critics say that’s a red herring that could lead the U.S. government to give the OK for discrimination among federal contractors, private employer denial of family and medical leave to same-sex couples and federal workers refusing to process paperwork for LGBT people. Sessions had already stated the directive would be based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law meant to preserve the rights of religious minorities that’s now used as an excuse for anti-LGBT discrimination.
It remains to be seen when the administration will issue the guidance and the nature of the policy. On his weekly radio show late last month, Perkins said action would come soon and the U.S. government will be “on notice that they have to respect religious freedom” — code for social conservatives to mean anti-LGBT discrimination.
Also in line with the goals of anti-LGBT groups was the recent filing by the Justice Department asserting lesbian, gay and bisexual people have no protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights of Act. That voluntary brief rejected a growing consensus among federal district courts and the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.
Daniel Pinello, a political scientist at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is among those who say “there’s a resurgence of anti-LGBT-group influence” under the Trump administration.
“People like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council figure far more prominently in White House policy making now,” Pinello said. “Indeed, Perkins personally crafted the Republican Party’s 2016 national platform with regard to social issues. President Trump is delivering on that document’s promise through actions such as the (gestating) transgender military ban and the Justice Department’s legal brief arguing against sexual orientation discrimination’s being encompassed within the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex-based discrimination.”
These anti-LGBT actions would be unheard of during the Obama administration, which sought over the course of eight years to enhance LGBT rights and never acted to inhibit them (although the progress was sometimes too slow for LGBT rights supporters demanding immediate change.) To find similar anti-LGBT policy, one would have to look back to the anti-gay administration of former President George W. Bush, who used his bully pulpit to advocate for a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage.
Moreover, these anti-LGBT acts from the Trump administration subvert the will of the public at large, which consistently voices majority support for LGBT rights. On the issue of transgender military service, for example, a Quinnipiac poll earlier this month found U.S. voters say by a margin of 68–27 percent, including 55–39 percent among voters in military households, that transgender people should be allowed to serve.
Also seeing a rise in influence among anti-LGBT groups is Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has included groups like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom among its list of hate groups.
“There is no question that they have access to this administration and are getting policies passed that are their preference in a way that we haven’t seen maybe ever,” Beirich said.
Invoking Trump’s own unique terminology, Beirich said, “If anybody is winning big-ly from Trump’s policies, its these folks, right? It’s the anti-LGBT hate groups and their various allies among conservatives.”
Trump enacts these policies amid a seemingly open-door rule at the White House for social conservatives with anti-LGBT records. The list is long of times when Trump welcomed them into the White House for photo opportunities and special occasions.
On May 3, the eve of the National Day of Prayer, Trump allowed into the Oval Office evangelical leaders — many of whom have anti-LGBT records — including Franklin Graham, who recently called for a boycott of the animated “Beauty and the Beast” over the inclusion of a gay character, as well as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, former Rep. Michele Bachmann and Faith & Freedom Coalition Chair Ralph Reed.
Reed, who once compared marriage equality to slavery and its opponents to abolitionists, tweeted out a photo of him with first daughter Ivanka Trump, who has professed to be an LGBT ally despite the anti-LGBT actions of her father’s administration.
“Great to be with @realDonaldTrump @IvankaTrump & VP Pence at faith advisory board meeting at the White House tonite,” Reed tweeted.
On July 10, Trump invited for a prayer session in the Oval Office many of the same people as well as Perkins and American evangelical leader Gary Bauer. Also in attendance were Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow, who called being LGBT a “perversity,” and Bishop Harry Jackson, a pastor at the Maryland-based Hope Christian Church who attempted to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage in D.C.
These Oval Office visits say nothing about the interactions between officials within the Trump administration and anti-LGBT groups. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech to Focus on the Family upon its anniversary, Kellyanne Conway gave a speech at the Family Leader’s summit in Iowa and Sessions gave closed-door remarks to Alliance Defending Freedom.
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of the LGBT media watchdog group GLAAD, has monitored the level of access these groups enjoy with Trump in the White House.
“The Trump administration’s choice to provide anti-LGBTQ activists an ‘express pass’ to the White House highlights this administration’s goal of stopping progress and rolling back LGBTQ protections,” Ellis said. “People like Tony Perkins have made careers out of making life harder for LGBTQ people and the decision to give anti-LGBTQ activists like him repeated White House access is a slap in the face to LGBTQ Americans that could have long-lasting consequences.”
What makes the rise of social conservative groups under Trump remarkable is that he wasn’t their preferred candidate for president during the 2016 Republican primary. That distinction generally belonged to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose candidacy frequently invoked fears over same-sex marriage and transgender people using the bathroom.
On the campaign trail, Trump stayed from away demonizing LGBT people, focusing instead on demonizing Muslims and immigrants while making promises to restore lost jobs in parts of the United States that haven’t adjusted after a shift from an industrial to information economy. In fact, during the general election, Trump professed to be a friend to LGBT people (although that hasn’t held up in terms of administrative policy).
Nonetheless, anti-LGBT groups rallied to Trump’s side after he claimed the Republican presidential nomination and evangelicals made up a strong percentage of his supporters. That support continued even after the release of a 2005 video in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by the genitals — even after those same groups stoked irrational fears of transgender people in the restroom by saying it would lead to sexual assault of women.
Pinello said social conservative groups opposed to LGBT rights are close to Trump despite friction during the primary because “any president willing to do one’s bidding will suffice at the end of the day.”
“Ted Cruz supplied the brand of social-conservative policy analysis consistent with the tenets of groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. They all spoke the same language,” Pinello said. “Yet the identical organizations are happy to jettison coherent and cognizable policy in favor of preferred outcomes like the military ban and statutory-interpretation limitation. Any port in a storm.”
With public approval for Trump at an all-time low and disapproval at an all-time high, Beirich said Trump cultivates support from social conservatives because that is what remains of his voters.
“They’re a major part of his base,” Beirich said. “If he were to lose support from these folks, he would be in serious, serious trouble.”
Beirich also cited as a reason for the influence of anti-LGBT groups the presence in the White House of Pence, whom she said has been “close to these groups forever and ever and ever.”
“He passed a religious liberty law that was problematic in Indiana,” Beirich said. “He’s spoken to all these folks, he lives in their circles, and so, with support overall for Trump collapsing, he’s got to hold onto his base, and this is his base.”
The Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment for this article.