Trump May Not Be Anti-Gay, But Much of His Senior Staff Is

Trump's senior staff picks include some of the most virulently anti-gay politicians in the country, leaving LGBT groups uncertain and worried about the future.

Illustration: Kurt Woerpel for The Intercept

President-elect Donald Trump has called himself a “supporter” of LGBT rights, but his senior staff picks include some of the most virulently anti-gay politicians in the country, leaving LGBT groups uncertain and worried about what path he will eventually take.

Topping the anti-gay list is Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, called “the number one face of hate in the country.”

Early in his career, Pence advocated siphoning off government money for HIV treatment and instead putting it toward gay “conversion therapy.” He has urged Congress to “oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status,” and as recently as last year, Pence signed a license-to-discriminate bill that allowed business to refuse service to LGBT people.

Trump’s pick for attorney general – Sen. Jeff Sessions – has a voting record rated “zero percent” by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. Sessions voted for a failed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and against the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that did not allow gay people to serve openly in the military. He also opposed expanding the definition of a hate crime to include LGBT people.

“It is deeply disturbing that Jeff Sessions, who has such clear animus against so many Americans — including the LGBTQ community, women and people of color — could be charged with running the very system of justice designed to protect them,” Griffin said in a November statement.

Trump also named Betsy DeVos — a billionaire Republican donor and anti-gay activist — as education secretary. DeVos’s family, which includes Blackwater founder Eric Prince, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-gay groups, including groups that advocate for “conversion therapy.”

Trump’s top White House adviser Steve Bannon is the former chairman of Breitbart News Network, which has published headlines like “Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber, It’s Time to Get Back in the Closet,” and “Day Of Silence: How The LGBT Agenda Is Hijacking America’s Youth.”

The Trump transition’s policy team also includes Ken Klukowski, a Breitbart editor and right-wing lawyer who Politico reported is the transition’s point person for “protecting constitutional rights.” Klukowski has worked for several anti-gay groups, including the Family Research Council and American Civil Rights Union, and served on the faculty of Liberty University — widely considered a haven for anti-gay evangelicals.

Klukowski has written articles for Breitbart News about the “homosexual agenda” and the “transgender agenda,” and coauthored an amicus brief to the Supreme Court urging the court not to expand Title IX protections to include gender identity. His columns have warned of “disaster” if the Republican Party changes course on gay marriage.

Although Trump couldn’t single-handedly overturn the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, there are many other ways he could harm LGBT rights. Trump’s Justice Department could undermine hate crime protections for LGBT people and withdraw Obama’s directive to schools not to discriminate against transgender students. Trump could also rescind Obama’s executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, or support legislation that allows employment discrimination.

Not all of the voices in Trump’s inner circle oppose LGBT rights. Rudy Giuliani — considered a possible pick cabinet pick — came out in support of gay marriage in 2015, and officiated a gay wedding the following year. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Trump’s original transition chair, was the second governor to sign a ban on gay “conversion therapy,” acknowledging that sexuality is not a choice.

Some conservative LGBT advocates have defended Trump by arguing that he has no personal anti-gay animus. Joseph Murray, the administrator for the group LGBTrump, wrote a column arguing that Trump “does not fit the LGBT left narrative,” because he has involved several gay people in his transition team.

For example, Trump named Silicon Valley CEO Peter Thiel, who is gay, to the executive committee of his transition team. Trump also reportedly considered appointing Richard Grenell, a former spokesperson for the Bush administration at the UN, as UN ambassador, but picked South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley instead.

News of a possible cabinet-level position for Grenell, who is gay, was enough to set off some anti-gay pundits. Bryan Fischer, a former spokesman for the American Family Association and current host on the American Family Radio Network, reacted to a possible Grennell appointment by tweeting that conservatives would have to fight Trump’s “homosexual agenda.”

Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans — a leading group of conservatives fighting for LGBT inclusion in the Republican party — expressed concerns about some of the anti-LGBT voices entering the administration, but argued that Trump is attempting to unify warring Republican factions.

“There is a reason that Log Cabin Republicans withheld endorsement from Mr. Trump. That is because there are many unknowns surrounding his presidency,” said Angelo. “What I can say with certainty is that marriage equality in the United States is here, and here to stay.”

He continued: “When you look big picture, what you see is someone who is surrounding themself with, in many cases, just as many pro-gay individuals as there are people who are not historical allies of the LGBT community. What that seems indicative of is Mr. Trump trying to unify what have been historically polarized and historically oppositional forces not just within the GOP, but within American culture.”

But other groups aren’t buying it, and argue that Trump has set back LGBT rights by placing anti-gay politicians in positions of extreme power. “The people President-elect Trump picks to serve in his administration will have a huge impact on the policies he pursues,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign. “We should all be alarmed at who he’s appointing to key posts on his transition team.”

Following Trump’s rise during the Republican primary, his party’s position on gay marriage appeared to become a bit less extreme. The GOP platform no longer calls for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual, unlike in 2012 — although it attacks the Supreme Court’s decision and gives a quiet nod to so-called “conversion therapy.”

Many members of the LGBT community were alarmed by Trump’s election, with gay and transgender rights organization receiving a massive number of calls from people concerned about facing increased discrimination or the prospect of marriage equality being overturned.

Trump told Leslie Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes shortly after the election that he would not try to overturn the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. “It was already settled, he said. “It’s law. It was settled in the Supreme Court. I mean, it’s done.”

But in January, he had told Chris Wallace of Fox News that he would “strongly consider” appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn the decision.

Trump’s position on transgender rights is also ambiguous. He criticized bills that restrict the rights of transgender people in April, saying that they should be able to “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate,” before reversing himself in July and saying he’s “going with the state.”

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