For LGBTQ2 rights groups and activists, to say the stakes are high in the 2020 U.S. election is a gross understatement.
There is a thread of hope among them as the Nov. 3 election day draws closer, but after four years of what they say has been a deluge of hostile, discriminatory and dangerous policies, the fear is palpable.
“Americans are facing a black and white choice, and we can assume that if the Trump administration gets re-elected, that LGBTQ+ rights will worsen,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International, a non-profit advocacy group.
“You don’t think to yourself, ‘I need to prepare for the government to take away my rights,’ but that’s where LGBTQ+ people are today.”
Under the Obama administration, LGBTQ2 Americans won long-fought battles, including legalizing same-sex marriage, repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and developing the first comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy.
It wasn’t perfect, advocates agree, but it was progress. Under Trump, they say that progress was stifled.
“What we’ve seen, with laser focus, is the Trump administration going after all the legislation that the Obama administration worked to protect LGBTQ people and LGBTQ equality,” said Naomi Goldberg, the policy research director at Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a think tank that maintains a database on laws affecting LGBTQ2 people.
“It’s not that the progress has stalled, it’s an undoing of a fabric that had started to come together.”
Since his election in 2016, activists have decried a number of moves by Trump. His administration has steadily appointed anti-LGBTQ2 judges, proposed a rule that would give certain federal contractors the right to discriminate against people who don’t share their employer’s religious views, and put forward a change to the Affordable Care Act that would remove explicit protections for LGBTQ2 people in health-care programs, which was finalized in June.
“It’s actually hard to articulate how harmful it’s been,” said Stern. “We’re not talking about theoretical harm.”
At the top of the list is transgender rights. It’s taken a front seat under Trump, said Stern, one she says she’s still unable to fathom.
The past four years have seen the Trump administration withdraw regulatory protections for transgender children in schools, fight recognition of transgender people under federal employment laws, ban transgender people from serving in the military, roll back protections for transgender people in prisons, and threaten to revoke funding for schools that let transgender girls participate in sports.
“We’re talking about a community that is already on the front lines of violence and discrimination,” said Stern. “The Trump administration has demonstrated a desire to go backward in time.”
At least 33 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed in the U.S. so far in 2020, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women. It’s the highest number seen since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking the data, and the year is not yet over.
At the crux of this are issues that affect all Americans, said Emilio Vicente, communications and policy director of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, which works at the intersection of LGBTQ2 and immigrant rights. He believes not enough has been done by the Trump administration to address marginalized communities on basic needs like health care, employment and fair wages, housing insecurities and poverty — all things that put the LGBTQ2 community at further risk.
“All these issues disproportionately affect the trans community,” he said.
“We need to protect our most marginalized communities, and when we talk about the most marginalized, unfortunately, that is a Black trans woman. They’ve been under attack this year and over the past four years.”
Biden has called the violence against transgender Americans “an epidemic that needs national leadership.” He has accused the Trump administration of fuelling “the flames of transphobia.”
Trump’s wife Melania has come to her husband’s defence during the campaign, insisting the U.S. president is a staunch supporter of the LGBTQ2 community and rejecting claims that he is anti-gay or against equality. The Republican National Committee has touted what the party sees as the president’s “unprecedented steps” to forward the LGBTQ2 agenda, including the appointment of Richard Grenell as acting director of national intelligence, making him the first openly gay person to hold a cabinet-level position.
Biden’s plan to advance protections and affirm rights for LGBTQ2 Americans is extensive.
The former vice-president has promised to end violence against trans folk, particularly trans women of colour, expand access to health care for LGBTQ2 people, and impose a number of measures to advance global LGBTQ2 rights. On Thursday, Biden vowed to make LGBTQ2 rights legislation, known as the Equality Act, a top priority, promising to sign what would be a landmark civil rights law within 100 days should he be elected.
He also has given LGBTQ2 “thinkers, leaders and activists a seat at the decision-making table,” said Stern.
“By contrast, you can’t find LGBTQ+ policy on the Trump website,” she said.
“In a way, we don’t need to speculate about what his campaign positions are because we can look at the four-year track record of how he’s governed… If Trump is reelected, we can assume an LGBTQ agenda will be similar to the first term only on steroids.”
For advocates, one of the most poignant examples of the Trump administration’s stance on LGBTQ2 rights unfolded mere days ago — the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The majority of Trump’s anti-LGBTQ2 actions have come through administrative rules, though many of them have been challenged in federal court. By appointing conservative judges — many of whom, like Barrett have openly expressed or supported anti-LGBTQ2 sentiments or actions — Trump has a stronger hold over federal policy.
This had a sweeping impact on legal battles and, with a Trump second term, would only continue, said Goldberg. Several lawsuits, like ones against the transgender military ban, could eventually land in the Supreme Court, where advocates fear a judge like Barrett, on a predominantly conservative court, could strip away gay rights.
The immediate concern for advocates is Barrett’s presence on the court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that looks at whether faith-based child welfare agencies can refuse to work with same-sex couples and other people they consider to be in violation of their religious beliefs.
Goldberg believes this highlights how the Trump administration uses federal law to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“At the heart of it is the legitimacy of queer families, but it’s much more intersectional,” said Goldberg. “This is about people of colour, this is about women, this about immigrants. It’s about all of us.”
“We’re not just talking about the next four years, we’re really thinking about the next 40 years. The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett speaks to that.”
But with election day around the corner, many LGBTQ2 voters in the U.S. appear to have their minds made up.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have traditionally voted Democrat in greater numbers and, despite recent efforts to woo the LGBTQ2 community with a series of “Trump Pride” rallies, Tuesday’s election is likely to be no different.
According to a recent GLAAD poll, 76 per cent of queer voters support Joe Biden, while 17 per cent support Trump. Just two per cent remained undecided, according to the survey, as of late September.
While it’s hard to gauge the exact size of Trump’s LGBTQ2 support, he is appealing to some of the community. Some of his gay Republican supporters say they’re more focused on the economy or national security, while others are tired of being told what is and isn’t an acceptable political view.
“A lot of people just don’t like to be told they can only think a certain way, and that’s exactly what the left does,” Bob Kabel, chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay conservative group, told NBC News. “You’re accused of being a racist or a homophobe if you don’t agree with everything they say, and a lot of people are just tired of that.”
But there has been a shift among conservative voters, as well. Support for same-sex marriage, largely seen as synonymous with LGBTQ2 rights, has risen to 62 per cent in the U.S., according to the Public Religion Research Institute. That’s compared to 36 per cent in 2007.
Similarly, likely voters in 10 battleground states overwhelmingly support LGBTQ2 rights, including many of those who would like to see Trump reelected, according to a survey by Hart Research and the Human Rights Campaign.
“The good news is that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be registered to vote and are definitely more politically engaged than the general populace,” said Goldberg.
There’s a lot at stake, she said, but in some ways the overarching question is simple.
“Not only do we want to get back to where we were in 2016, but do we actually want to work to pass 21-century civil rights legislation for LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour, and for women, and for immigrants?” she said.
“Do we want to come together and address inequities and the erosion of democracy?”
— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters