Stealth Campaign Targeting Vulnerable LGBTQ Populations Escalates Under Trump

The speed with which the Trump administration is wielding the regulatory process against sexual orientation and gender identity sharply diverges from the Obama administration’s slow, steady march toward LGBTQ rights through the federal agencies.

Trump's U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the past two weeks alone eliminated questions about LGBTQ people from two surveys instrumental in setting federal policy that helps seniors and people with disabilities. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Behind President Donald Trump’s public posturing on rights for LGBTQ people, his cabinet-level agencies are working deep in the weeds to undermine protections—particularly for young, old, disabled, and homeless individuals.

Several advocacy organizations issued press releases Monday detailing the initial scope of the Trump administration’s stealth campaign to erase vulnerable LGBTQ populations from housing and health-care protections, among other, more overt agency-level actions. The speed with which the Trump administration is wielding the regulatory process against sexual orientation and gender identity sharply diverges from the Obama administration’s slow, steady march toward LGBTQ rights through the federal agencies.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the past two weeks alone eliminated questions about LGBTQ people from two surveys instrumental in setting federal policy that helps seniors and people with disabilities.

The National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants assesses “the needs of older Americans who receive social support and nutritional programs,” including “home delivered meals, congregant meals, transportation, caregiver support, and senior centers,” according to the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). The second survey, the Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living, assesses the needs of people with disabilities.

Federal data collection on LGBT people is already scarce, but rolling back collection on crucial safety net programs is particularly disturbing,” the groups wrote in a joint blog post. “LGBT people experience overt and systematic discrimination across all areas of life—from education to housing, healthcare, employment, and the public square. As a result, LGBT people face acute levels of income insecurity, making it particularly important that federal safety net programs meet the needs of the LGBT community.”

Eliminating the data, they continued, poses the “risk [of] erasing the experiences [of] LGBT seniors and people with disabilities and making it impossible for HHS to identify and end disparities and discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs.”

Estimates place the number of LGBTQ seniors nationwide at 1.5 million. The population will double by 2030, according to SAGE.

Over at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness are the target of erasure. HUD abandoned federal guidelines affecting LGBTQ beneficiaries of two different programs.

HUD-funded emergency shelters no longer have to “post information about LGBTQ people’s rights to access shelter safely and in accordance with their gender identity,” according to a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) statement. Separately, HUD axed “critical data collection and implementation guidelines for a homelessness prevention initiative targeting LGBTQ youth.” Doing so may hinder efforts to evaluate the youth initiative’s success and replicate it, HRC Associate Legal Director Robin Maril told Rewire in a phone interview.

Approximately 40 percent of young people experiencing homelessness and obtaining services from various agencies identify as LGBTQ, according to a 2012 survey from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

Perhaps the most public affront to LGBTQ people thus far has occurred at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Education. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in late February jointly rescinded Obama-era protections for transgender students under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

Title IX protects trans students, no matter what the Trump administration believes, as Rewire’s Jessica Mason Pieklo explained last monthStill, ditching the guidance spurred the U.S. Supreme Court to send the case of transgender student Gavin Grimm, who wants to use the bathroom that aligns with his gender identity, back to a federal appeals court rather than hear oral arguments.

DOJ struck again in early March. Under Sessions, the department “took the highly unusual step of declining to appeal a nationwide preliminary injunction that prevents HHS from taking any action to protect transgender people from health care discrimination under the Affordable Care Act,” according to a National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) statement.

A day later, DOJ dropped its fight against North Carolina’s discriminatory HB 2 law, which bans transgender individuals from using public restrooms based on their own gender identity.

Cabinet Fulfilling Anti-LGBTQ Goals

Actions against LGBTQ people and those that Sessions considers “other” are to be expected under his vision for DOJ. But the more furtive actions at HUD and HHS should also come as no surprise.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson used his Senate confirmation hearing to reiterate his opposition to “extra rights” for LGBTQ people. CAP’s Sejal Singh and Laura Durso documented HHS Secretary Tom Price’s “career opposing LGBTQ rights” in a blog post prior to the longtime Georgia representative’s confirmation.

On a prescient note, they warned that Price “sponsored legislation that would permit discrimination in the very programs HHS oversees, raising serious questions about whether he will uphold the rights that LGBT people have under existing law.”

Even the U.S. Department of State isn’t exempt from the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda. The State Department last week appointed a senior representative from a vocal anti-LGBTQ organization and Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group to serve on a delegation to the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The hate group, the Center for Family & Human Rights (C-FAM), is synonymous with extreme rhetoric and policies.

The decision provided some overdue insight into how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might move U.S. foreign policy forward, or backward, on LGBTQ rights.

Tillerson’s confirmation hearing failed to uncover his views, focusing largely on the former ExxonMobil CEO’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin—a notorious opponent of LGBTQ rights. On his own time, Tillerson, a “devout Christian,” engineered the entry of openly gay scouts into the Boy Scouts of America. But his own company lagged behind others in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, adding to the uncertainty among LGBTQ diplomats serving the United States abroad.

LGBTQ Protections Facing “Systemic Rollback”

Trump made much ado about his commitment to LGBTQ rights amid reports in late January of a draft executive order that outlined broad and potentially devastating executive action against an already vulnerable population, perhaps even declaring gender immutable from birth and rolling back adoption rights. The White House bragged about Trump’s subsequent pledge to uphold a handful of LGBTQ protections—a move that advocates equated with a “license to discriminate” rather than a shield against discrimination.

A broadly drafted religious imposition order could still be in the works. In addition to dismantling LGBTQ rights, Rewire’s Pieklo explained that the White House could use such an order to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit faster than Price could rescind it at HHS.

If the White House fails to act, a handful of ultra-conservative congressional Republicans are laying the groundwork to strengthen the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the mother of all religious imposition laws. Their leader: Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the Confederate-flag-displaying, reproductive rights antagonist behind a proposed total abortion ban and most recently, repeated public statements supporting white nationalism.

The NCTE characterized the Trump administration’s latest actions as part of a “systemic rollback” of protections for LGBTQ people.

“Apparently, President Trump doesn’t want the government to know, or want anyone else to know, basic information about the lives of LGBT older Americans, LGBT people with disabilities, or LGBT youth facing homelessness,” Executive Director Mara Kiesling said in the group’s statement. “He doesn’t want people to know they can’t be kicked out of shelters for being LGBT. But he does want a group like C-FAM—which promotes ugly lies and slurs about transgender people—to represent our country to the world.” 

Opposition Growing Among Congressional Democrats

On Capitol Hill, some Democrats put the Trump administration, specifically HHS, on notice.

“There can be no possible justification for this action,” Sen. Patty Murray (WA), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. “Secretary Price should immediately resume this data collection and provide a detailed explanation for why this decision was first ordered—and he should know that he will be held accountable, every step of the way, for any harm that arises from his actions against LGBTQ Americans.”

The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus concurred.

“The Trump Administration has decided to try and pretend LGBT older Americans just do not exist,” LGBT Aging Issues Task Force Chair Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) said in a statement. “Removing LGBT people from this survey means the administration doesn’t care about the plight of LGBT elders, who face higher levels of poverty and typically have less familial support. Programs supporting LGBT elders are literally lifesaving, and LGBT people deserve to have their voices heard.”