CNN Opinion: How Trump can keep his promise to LGBTQ Americans
Many of us believed, with good reason at the time, that President Donald Trump might be a new kind of Republican when it came to LGBTQ issues.
As a candidate, he became the first GOP nominee to promise from the convention dais to protect LGBTQ Americans and feature an openly gay man on the primetime convention floor. He waved a rainbow pride flag at a campaign rally in Colorado, and welcomed Caitlyn Jenner — quite literally with open arms — at his inaugural celebration.
Less than a week ago, the media and the public alike marked Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office by, among other things, comparing his actions as president to the promises made during his campaign. One promise — “to protect our LGBTQ citizens” — rings particularly hollow in light of Trump’s actions in office so far. And now, he is expected to sign an executive order that would license discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in the name of religious liberty.
As CNN has reported, a senior administration official said it is “definitely possible” the White House could sign the order as early as Thursday to coincide with the National Day of Prayer (though that official cautioned that the timing of executive orders out of the Trump White House can often change).
Even before his prior gestures, Trump had a history of support. As Washington Post journalists Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher document in Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President, Trump’s favorable inclination toward gay rights dated to his membership in the Reform Party in the late 1990s. Trump supported amending the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation protections and supported the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Unfortunately, the first 100 days of Trump’s administration have left LGBTQ Americans and pro-freedom Republicans reeling. The White House rescinded Title IX guidance regarding the equal treatment of transgender students in schools following an interdepartmental fight that played out in the national media.
The Department of Health and Human Services dropped LGBTQ data collection from its surveys. Some of Trump’s Cabinet and administration appointees include individuals who are known to say derogatory things about gay and transgender Americans. For example, his recent nominee for Army Secretary, Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green, claimed being transgender is a “disease,” and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a long legislative record of voting against the interests of LGBTQ Americans.
This latest executive order, an extreme proposal that would sanction discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, would be an even greater burden on the LGBTQ community. Freedom of religion is fundamental to the American way of life and enshrined in the First Amendment. But freedom of religion does not give people the right to impose their beliefs on others, to harm others, or to discriminate — as seen in a previously leaked version of this executive order.
If this leaked order were put in effect, government employees could discriminate against gay and transgender taxpayers, the way court clerk Kim Davis refused to serve a gay couple in Kentucky and sparked a national media firestorm. Taxpayer-funded government contractors could fire their LGBTQ employees, and taxpayer-funded agencies could turn away the LGBTQ community from ostensibly public services.
Not only would the courts likely deem such an order unconstitutional, it would also be wildly unpopular. Americans, including majorities of Republicans, overwhelmingly oppose discrimination. A July 2016 Project Right Side survey found that more than 60% of Republicans favor the existing executive order protections for LGBTQ government workers and contractors set in place by President Obama.
Trump’s regression on LGBTQ issues is inconsistent with the sea change in the Republican Party on attitudes toward the gay and transgender community. We’ve seen GOP lawmakers cast deciding votes in favor of the freedom to marry, introduce nondiscrimination measures, and defeat and sometimes veto harmful legislation. Some have risked their political careers to do the right thing. In recent years, hundreds of discriminatory or anti-LGBTQ bills have been defeated, mostly in GOP-controlled states.
Trump’s best path forward is to embrace both people of faith and LGBTQ Americans, recognizing that both communities are deserving of support and protection — and realizing that they overlap and intersect. Instead of issuing an executive order, Trump should join forces with Congress. Nondiscrimination amendments to our civil rights laws can protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, while also guaranteeing the religious freedoms of individuals and organizations. Only legislative action will give these cultural questions the serious debate and lasting solutions they deserve.
It’s not too late for the President to reverse course and be the pro-freedom leader many hoped for and expected. If he wants to be a true friend to the LGBTQ community and to freedom writ large, he won’t sign an executive order permitting discrimination against gay and transgender Americans. Instead, he ought to work with Congress to pass laws and amendments that provide comprehensive protections for Americans regardless of their religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Margaret Hoover is a CNN contributor and President of the American Unity Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing conservative support for LGBTQ Americans. Tyler Deaton is a Senior Adviser to the American Unity Fund. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.