Before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere in America, a gay activist in Florida twice brought a date to the Mar-a-Lago club. Each time, Rand Hoch and his guest were greeted by the smiling face of Donald Trump.
“Great eye contact. Firm handshake. The same way with everybody who came in,” Hoch, founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, recalled Friday. “There was no difference at all with my dates and me and the people in back of me or in front of me. He’s out there, he’s personable, and there’s no way he’s going to treat anybody differently.”
Never before has the leader of the Republican Party shown as much public comfort with gay people as this one has. Trump has attended gay weddings, donated to gay causes, and welcomed gay couples as Mar-a-Lago members when they were still shunned by other Florida clubs.
Now he is president, and much of the LGBT community is apprehensive.
“I don’t think he is making policy. I think he’s surrounded himself with some horrible people when it comes to LGBT issues, they’re the ones that are making policy, and he’s going to sign whatever Steve Bannon puts in front of him. And that’s the problem,” Hoch said.
“It’s not like there’s anybody in the official administration who’s an advocate of treating LGBT people the way we treat every other American. I can’t think of a single one. And that’s frightening.”
Trump’s vice-president, Christian conservative Mike Pence, approved a law when he was governor of Indiana that permitted businesses to cite “religious freedom” to defend against claims of anti-gay discrimination. Bannon, his chief strategist, ran a website that published anti-gay articles.
Most notably, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a long record of fierce opposition to LGBT rights. He replaced Barack Obama appointee Loretta Lynch, whom the gay and transgender communities regarded as a loyal ally.
“What his personal opinion is, I haven’t spent one second thinking about that at all. It’s his actions. It’s the people he’s surrounding himself with,” said Grant Stancliff, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Equality Ohio.
The six-week-old administration has sent mixed signals so far, alternately heartening and disquieting LGBT advocates.
In one of his earliest statements, Trump said he would preserve an Obama order that banned anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors — his team explaining “he continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election.”
Three weeks later, though, his administration withdrew an Obama directive telling schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. In a Friday letter, the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group that has been supportive of Trump, expressed “deep concerns” about that decision.
At a briefing in February, Trump’s chief spokesperson, Sean Spicer, said Trump was considering a “religious freedom” order that would likely provide protections to businesses and other organizations that want to deny services to same-sex couples and transgender people. Trump then declined to sign an order that was leaked to the media. Then, last week, Spicer said: “I’m sure as we move forward we’ll have something.”
“In terms of actions he’s taken and not taken, it’s an entirely confusing story,” Hoch said.
Some of Trump’s words have encouraged LGBT advocates. Some of them have raised alarm. During the campaign, Stancliff noted, he vowed to defend gay people almost at the same time as he framed Muslims as dangerous enemies. And while he said transgender people should use the bathroom of their choice, he also blasted as “ridiculous” the Obama decision last year to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military.
Ilona Turner, legal director of the Transgender Law Center, said Trump’s words of support are widely seen as “absolutely hollow and fake.” Some transgender students, she said, are already hearing that their schools no longer plan to allow them to use the bathroom of their choice.
“It is going to have an immediate and very harmful effect on students and families,” she said.
Lynch gave a speech in May telling transgender people that the government was on their side — an “unimaginably powerful” message to a marginalized community, Turner said. The appointment of Sessions, she said, says the opposite: “That we are returning to a time when transgender people had to live in fear, and live in the shadows, and could not expect support from their government.”
The bathroom battle is far from the only one on which Sessions could affect transgender people.
In 2015, the Department of Justice sued an Oklahoma university for alleged discrimination against a transgender professor. It appears distinctly unlikely that the Sessions-led department will be so aggressive.
In December, a judge in Texas halted a part of the Affordable Care Act that was to begin prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in health services. Trump says he is planning to repeal the act, known as Obamacare, and Sessions declined to submit an appeal by the court’s deadline, instead asking for more time.
David Lampo, a gay conservative Trump supporter and a former Log Cabin Republicans board member, said the “gay establishment” has reacted to Trump with “disdain and contempt” unwarranted by Trump’s actual behaviour. He argued that advocates are so antagonistic because of their alliances with the broader left-wing resistance to the president.
Lampo opposed the Obama directive on transgender students, calling it federal overreach. And he believes businesspeople should be allowed to decline services to same-sex weddings. But he said he was concerned Trump will endorse the views of the social conservatives who also want protection for government officials.
During the Republican primary, Trump gently criticized Kentucky clerk Kim Davis over her refusal to issue marriage licences to gay couples, saying “this was not the right job for her.” Just three weeks later, he said, “I haven’t been opposed to her stand, and I think it’s fine.”
“Religious liberty certainly has nothing to do with the right of a public employee not doing their job,” Lampo said. “It’s important that Trump learn to make that distinction between public employees and purely private businessmen.”