May 23, 2018 at 10:19 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
U.S. agencies to celebrate Pride month, but without Cabinet secretaries

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis and HUD Secretary Ben Carson aren’t attending Pride celebrations hosted by their agencies. (Washington Blade photos of Pompeo and Carson by Michael Key; photo of Mattis public domain)

With Pride month approaching, many U.S. agencies in the second year of the Trump administration are continuing plans to hold celebrations for their LGBT workers, although Cabinet leaders will be absent and some annual events are in question.

The absence of Cabinet leaders at these events stands in contrast to the Obama years when they were featured speakers at the celebrations, wished LGBT federal workers a happy Pride and reflected on the significance of the annual event.

Meanwhile, President Trump has an opportunity to reverse his decision last year to ignore the occasion and issue a proclamation recognizing June as Pride month, which was the custom of former Presidents Obama and Clinton. Obama also each year in office hosted a reception at the White House with LGBT leaders to commemorate Pride.

Any Trump Pride proclamation would stand out and raise questions after a year of LGBT rollbacks in his administration since last June that include a transgender military ban, the Justice Department’s decision to exclude LGBT people from protections under federal civil rights law and “religious freedom” executive actions that would enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

The White House didn’t respond to repeated requests from the Blade in the past two weeks to comment on whether Trump would recognize Pride either with a proclamation or a reception, nor would White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders call on the Blade during her regular news conference in that time period, which has been her custom since taking on the role.

A handful of U.S. departments and agencies already have plans in place for events recognizing June as Pride month, despite rollbacks in those departments on LGBT rights.

Most prominent is an event DOD Pride is hosting June 11 at the Pentagon Center Courtyard. The event is consistent with Pride celebrations at the Pentagon that started in the Obama years and continued in the first year of the Trump administration, but it’s the first one that takes place after Trump instituted his transgender military ban, which he first announced on Twitter in July 2017.

Although federal courts have blocked the Defense Department from enforcing the ban as litigation against it moves forward, since those rulings Defense Secretary James Mattis has issued recommendations affirming transgender people should be excluded from the armed forces with few exceptions. Any appearance by him at a Pride celebration would contradict that sentiment.

Asked if Mattis will attend, a member of DOD Pride said the organization instead invited Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, but he’s unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict. Invitations to the rest of Pentagon leadership were set to go out Monday, the DOD Pride member said.

At the State Department, the LGBT affinity group for foreign service officers, GLIFAA, has coordinated with the State Department’s Office of Civil Rights and will host an internal event for employees on June 5, where Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) are scheduled to speak.

But in the aftermath of Senate confirmation of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, GLIFAA has also opted to invite a different official. As a member of the U.S. House representing Kansas, Pompeo built an anti-LGBT record and once suggested homosexuality is a “perversion” — a topic on which Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) grilled the secretary of state during his confirmation hearing.

David Glietz, president of GLIFAA, said the organization opted to invite Sullivan as opposed to Pompeo because Pompeo’s confirmation was uncertain at the time the event was planned.

“The event was planned prior to Secretary Pompeo’s confirmation and at the time we were unsure when he would be confirmed and arrive in the department,” Glietz said. “Therefore, we opted to request the Deputy attend as the most senior department official at the time of planning.”

At the Department of Housing & Urban Development, HUD Pride is holding two events. One event on June 6 is on the legal landscape of LGBT access to housing and shelter, and a panel discussion on June 20 on the same topic.

Much like the other affinity groups, HUD Pride is coordinating to have the deputy secretary speak as opposed to the Cabinet member. A HUD Pride official said the main event would be the June 20 panel, but HUD Secretary Ben Carson won’t attend because he’s already scheduled for travel that week. Instead, HUD Pride has invited Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude and is hoping for confirmation soon.

Had Carson attended, it would have been months after he expressed concerns about allowing transgender people access to homeless shelters consistent with their gender identity — the very topic the panel is set to discuss. During a congressional hearing in March, Carson said the issue is “complex,” citing concerns by women whom he said don’t want to use bathroom facilities with “somebody who had a very different anatomy.”

At the Education Department, an email from LGBTQ & Allied Employees at ED was sent out highlighting two events recognizing Pride. One discussion set for June 19 is titled “Highlighting Difference with Children.” Another event in July is set to discuss Supreme Court cases related to LGBT issues and will feature speakers from the Education Department’s Office of the General Counsel.

An Education Department employee said Secretary Betsy DeVos was invited to attend, but there’s “not a chance” she’d make an appearance. DeVos’ participation in the event on children would stand in contrast to her decision not to take up complaints from transgender kids whose schools have blocked their bathroom access, while taking part in the panel discussion on the Supreme Court would be noteworthy after she said she wouldn’t reverse that policy until the Supreme Court or Congress acts on the issue.

Pride celebrations at other U.S. agencies are in question altogether. The Commerce Department in the first year of the Trump administration held an event recognizing Pride, although Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross didn’t attend. Months after Ross issued an equal employment statement that excluded LGBT workers — then corrected it — a Commerce Department official told the Blade the department has no plans to host a similar event this year.

At the Justice Department, the situation is similar. A DOJ Pride member said he’s “not at liberty to comment” on whether the Justice Department would hold a Pride celebration. The DOJ Pride member referred the Blade to the Justice Department’s public affairs office, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

No Pride events at the Justice Department would be a change. DOJ Pride has coordinated Pride celebrations in the Great Hall of the Justice Department even during the George W. Bush administration. Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey spoke during the last year of the Bush administration, and U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch addressed DOJ Pride during the Obama years.

Last year, a Pride celebration took place in the Great Hall under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, although the event wasn’t confirmed until June, Sessions didn’t attend and the Blade was kicked out when attempting to cover the event. Over the course of the Trump administration, Sessions has spearheaded the legal framework for LGBT rollbacks, including “religious freedom” guidance that would enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

At the Department of Health & Human Services, a member of One HHS, the affinity group for the HHS LGBT employees, said independent of the organization the department’s equal employment opportunity office is planning a Pride event.

It’s unclear whether HHS Secretary Alex Azar, whose department established a Religious Freedom & Conscience Division enabling medical practitioners to refuse service to transgender people, would take part. The HHS public affairs office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

One agency scheduled to host a Pride event is the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is coming off a controversy after deleting material for LGBT businesses from its website at the start of the Trump administration. The material wasn’t restored until last week after complaints from House Democrats and LGBT small business leaders.

Blade Editor Kevin Naff was the keynote speaker at the SBA Pride event last year. SBA Administrator Linda McMahon wasn’t there, but an SBA official read a statement from her expressing support for Pride month. This year, a notice was sent out the event will take place either June 14 or June 19 and would be titled, “Remember the Past, Create the Future.”

Carol Wilkerson, an SBA spokesperson, said SBA is hosting the event and that it would include participation from the local LGBT Chamber of Commerce, although the time isn’t yet set. Asked if Administrator McMahon will make an appearance, Wilkerson replied, “Once the date is confirmed we will know more.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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