Yesterday was perhaps the most triumphant day for gay activists since the 2015 Supreme Court marriage decision – though you wouldn’t know it by listening to them. Despite serious pressure from the president’s Evangelical allies, his long-anticipated executive order on religious liberty contained no license to discriminate against gays. As it had in January, the administration considered, then rejected, provisions to allow individuals and organizations to treat gays shabbily as long as they had a religious excuse.
President Ted Cruz would have reveled in such a cruel order. Presidents Rubio, Bush, Christie, and even Kasich would probably have signed it under political pressure. But President Trump rejected the anti-gay language, throwing Evangelicals but a few crumbs facilitating church endorsements of candidates (which few of them want to do) and letting religious organizations decline to cover contraceptives (which gays do not use).
The sweeping, nasty language in early drafts of the religious-liberty order allowed individuals, organizations, and businesses that reject gay marriage and gender mutability to act in accordance with those beliefs by discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, health care, social services, education, and commerce.
The push for such protections emerged from a backlash over the gay community’s sore-winnership after its Supreme Court victory. A narrow exemption for businesses who don’t want to serve gay weddings (but who do serve gay individuals) would have been appropriate. Instead, bakers and florists were being pulverized for acting in accordance with their beliefs. In response, Christian groups overreached, lobbying Trump for broad – and oppressive – religious-liberty protections.
But LGBT Americans have now twice escaped such draconian measures, almost certainly because Trump and several members of his inner circle are sympathetic to gay concerns. More comfortable with a presidential bogeyman, the gay community and its allies actually spread rumors an anti-gay order was imminent, but it never came.
A few LGBT voices recognized how toothless yesterday’s news was. For example, openly gay ACLU director Anthony D. Romero called the signing ceremony “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome” and canceled his organization’s plans to sue.
Not so gay organizations. They ignored the breathtaking news of a disaster averted, and lambasted the president without identifying a single specific harm. Some of their pretzel-y twists aimed at fearmongering were amusing. Here’s the LGBT Equality caucus: “We cannot trust that this order will be narrowly utilized to not directly harm our community.”
Of course, Big Gay is never going to honor Trump’s heroic defense of LGBT Americans. But the dismay of anti-gay groups is what’s truly revelatory, since they saw the executive order as too pro-gay. The tired and pathetic National Organization for Marriage, the anti-Semitic Alliance Defending Freedom, and the overrated zealot Ryan Anderson all expressed disappointment.
With yesterday’s news, Trump continues to fulfill his campaign promise to be a real friend to LGBT people. As president, Trump has kept Obama’s rules barring companies doing federal work from discriminating against LGBT people. He retained Randy Berry, a diplomat whose mission is to protect gay people from persecution abroad. His work is particularly urgent in light of the lethal assault on the gay community of Chechnya –which Trump’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has vocally condemned.
Other examples of Trump’s friendly stance: HIV/AIDS programs have been spared the large cuts to the health budget; and Trump’s controversial executive order on refugees specifically stated that the United States should not admit those who would oppress Americans “of any sexual orientation.”
When asked to detail their objections to Trump, liberal gay activists have got nothing but mischaracterizations:
- Trump’s rule on transgender bathrooms mandated nothing, but rather gave schools the flexibility to handle locally a complicated issue balancing privacy and dignity. If Trump’s stance on this is transphobic, then Obama was transphobic for the first 7.5 years of his presidency, when he had the precise policy Trump now has.
- No, Vice President Mike Pence is not a raging homophobe. If anything, Trump has influenced Pence on gay issues rather than the other way around.
- It’s true Trump has not backed gay marriage, but that issue is defunct. Questioning him on marriage is like asking Democrats about racial quotas for government jobs. The Supreme Court has ruled definitively on both, so “gotcha” queries only drive a wedge between the politician’s most fervent supporters and more broadly popular positions.
Given the political calculus, Trump’s friendship to the gay community is stunning and unprecedented. Imagine if Barack Obama rejected a labor movement priority because it lacked fairness and compassion. Well, Trump won 80 percent of the white Evangelical vote but only 14 percent of the LGBT vote – yet time after time he has bucked his supporters and abetted his detractors.
Auspiciously, Trump’s popularity among Evangelicals has actually narrowed their political agenda to our benefit. For years, conservative Christians focused on abortion but pursued a social agenda that included opposition to gay rights. But by remaining steadfastly pro-life while refusing to budge on basic inclusion of gay Americans, Trump has forced conservative Christians to mute their antagonism toward homosexuality. That, perhaps, is the greatest kindness Trump has done for the gay community, and it is perplexing that Big Gay continues to fight him.
Imagine, by contrast, a White House summit to address issues like violence against LGBT prisoners and the crisis in Chechnya. Imagine an organized push to make sure gays and lesbians are well-represented as the Administration’s many open posts get filled. And imagine a president who uses his legendary deal-making powers to defang the longstanding antagonism between gays and more traditional Americans in a way that would add a notional pink stripe to the red, white, and blue.
Here’s the bizarre part: it may very well happen anyway, and the biggest beneficiaries won’t even notice.