A Year in Review piece is always interesting, but in 2017 it serves a much more important purpose: To document atrocities, and to remind us never to forget.
The first full year of Donald Trump’s presidency was marked by virulent, relentless attacks on LGBTQ equality. With the attacks came the same horror and grief that had taken hold in 2016 after the election.
But 2017 stands out for something else: Queer Resistance.
There is no question that there have been darker times in U.S. history for queer people. But in 2017, LGBTQ people saw hard-fought rights that were won over a period of many years ― like marriage equality ― seriously assaulted. Transgender people literally saw an attempt to make them invisible through the Trump administration banning the use of the word “transgender” at the Centers for Disease Control.
And yet, because of the movement for equality and full civil rights that activists built over decades, LGBTQ people stood up to the attacks and joined with other groups, becoming an integral and important part of the Resistance that took hold and is successfully fighting back.
In the past, queer people were in the background, or in the shadows, when fighting within the larger struggles for civil rights. Today we’re out and proud, helping lead the way. With that, here are some of the key moments, actions and realities that defined 2017.
The Women’s March on Washington invigorated many and inspired LGBTQ people and others to fight the onslaught of brutality in the Trump era.
Kicking off the year in January, this massive event gave many Americans, perhaps for the first time since the election, a sense of hope and empowerment, as millions marched in Washington and at hundreds of sister gatherings in the U.S. and around the world.
From the outset, march organizers described the demonstrations as a protest fighting for the rights of women, but also for the rights of many other groups that joined forces, including people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ people. Prominent among the leaders and speakers were lesbians and trans women, such as J. Bob Alotta, executive director of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, and trans author and activist Janet Mock. LGBTQ groups had a vital presence.
And among the millions marching were many queer people who found their voice with so many others. They began 2017 with an exhilarating moment that would inspire them to keep up the fight throughout the year.
The Trump cabinet, more white and male than any since Ronald Reagan’s, not surprisingly turned out to be a who’s who of homophobia.
From Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to (now former) Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s inner circle was and still is filled with vocal, ardent and extreme anti-LGBTQ advocates.
Never before have we seen people with such open displays of hostility to LGBTQ rights ― such as Carson, who compared same-sex marriage to bestiality, and DeVos, who publicly supports federal dollars going to private Christian schools that demonize homosexuality ― among the top advisors to a president. The hatred coming from Trump and his administration would filter down to all the departments, playing out in big ways, from making LGBT people invisible in the U.S. Census to ending collection of data on LGBTQ senior citizens. Mere acknowledgement of LGBTQ people ended as well. Trump, for example, issued no Pride proclamation in June, LGBTQ Pride Month.
Vice President Mike Pence, the long-time foe of LGBTQ rights who led Trump’s transition team, populated the administration with religious zealots hellbent on having Trump sign a broad “religious freedom” order that would discriminate against LGBTQ Americans and pander to the Republican evangelical base.
Though the administration seemed to retreat after public outcry over a leaked draft of the order in February, Pence and his allies have been successful throughout the year in quietly getting it put in place piecemeal, below the media’s radar.
Neil Gorsuch, a “religious liberty” extremist, was put on the Supreme Court by Trump.
Gorusch immediately began making his mark by challenging LGBTQ equality. Gorsuch, whom legal scholars described prior to his Senate confirmation as being to the right of even the late Justice Antonin Scalia, dodged questions during his confirmation hearings in March. But his agenda seemed clear to anyone who was watching when he tried to have it both ways on marriage equality.
The campaign by GOP operatives to help install Trump’s pick on the court spotlighted some of Gorsuch’s gay friends who spoke to the media about how accepting he’s been of them ― an attempt to make him appear LGBTQ-friendly, despite enough evidence to the contrary. Gorsuch was confirmed in April, with Republicans using the “nuclear option,” taking away the 60-vote threshold with which Democrats could have blocked him. The Senate’s 54-45 vote confirming him was the smallest approval margin for a Supreme Court nominee in years.
By June, Gorsuch revealed a dangerous disregard for the Obergefell marriage equality decision as he wrote the dissent in a 6-3 ruling that overturned an Arkansas law that prevented both parents in a same-sex marriage from being named on birth certificates ― as is the case for heterosexual wedded couples in the state (no matter the biological father). Gorsuch took pride in writing the dissent, joined by far-right Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, clearly supporting flat out discrimination and ignoring precedent. And he showed he is the anti-LGBTQ nightmare his gay friends hoped he wasn’t.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s life was saved by a black queer woman.
That shouldn’t even be considered a political moment, but the realities of Capitol Police Special Agent Crystal Griner’s sexual orientation and race were something religious conservatives and anti-LGBTQ bigots were loath to observe.
It was thus important to note that Griner, who is married to a woman, took a bullet in the ankle while protecting Scalise (along with fellow Special Agent David Bailey) from a deranged shooter who targeted GOP members of Congress at a baseball practice in mid-June.
Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who suffered a serious gunshot wound, has a voting record that is brutally hostile toward LGBTQ people, African-Americans, women and civil rights in general. He voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act; co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman; voted against including LGBTQ people in hate crimes protections; co-sponsored a bill to have states’ definition of marriage supersede a federal definition and, well, the list goes on and on.
When anti-LGBTQ religious conservatives claimed that it was God who saved Scalise, it was important to explain that God, then, must be a black queer woman ― or is working through her.
Griner and Bailey were honored by congressional leaders in November for their bravery. They were also given the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor by the president in July ― the day after he moved to ban transgender people from the military.
Six AIDS experts said they had enough and resigned from Trump’s AIDS commission.
Scott Schoettes, a gay man who is counsel and HIV project director at the pioneering LGBTQ legal group Lambda Legal, resigned in June from the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), along with five other council members, in protest of Trump’s polices ― or lack of polices ― to combat the HIV epidemic.
Schoettes lambasted Trump as callous, a president who “simply does not care.” In an op-ed on Newsweek.com, he said “the Trump administration has no strategy to address the on-going HIV/AIDS epidemic, seeks zero input from experts to formulate HIV policy, and — most concerning — pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease.”
By year’s end the administration had done nothing to address the criticism, while Trump issued a bland World AIDS Day proclamation on Dec. 1 that excluded LGBTQ people. And in late December it was reported by The New York Times that Trump became angry at a White House meeting in June on immigration and about Haitian immigrants in particular, lashing out that “they all have AIDS” ― further evidence of a reckless disregard for people with AIDS. The White House, as usual, denied the comments.
Transgender people were brutally assaulted by the Trump administration. Yet they showed remarkable resilience in 2017.
In February the Justice Department rescinded a directive to schools nationwide put in place the by Obama administration that allowed trans students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
Trump in July announced on Twitter he would bar transgender people from the military ― after the Obama administration had lifted a such a ban a year earlier ― potentially plunging the lives of some service members into chaos.
But trans activists mobilized immediately in protest, and they had many allies, a testament to how far the movement for trans rights and visibility had come. Transgender people received strong public support against the ban in opinion polls and even from some Republicans. And, with LGBTQ legal groups leading the way, the federal courts have so far ruled against the Trump directive.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a cruel action, rescinded protections for transgender people in the Justice Department in October. And by December we learned of the Trump administration move to have the CDC ban the word “transgender” (as well as other words and terms, such as “fetus” and “science-based”) in budget documents.
This could have a terrible effect on the health and well-being of trans people, who are, just to give one example, disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS and benefit from the CDC’s life-saving programs and policies.
Public outrage caused the Health and Human Services Department to push back, clearly on the defensive. The largest LGBTQ group, the Human Rights Campaign, projected the word “transgender” and the other banned words onto the Trump International Hotel in Washington in late December in an amazing light installation that garnered much media attention.
The determination and resilience of trans people shined through all year. Trans people actually had a victory in Congress in July when the House, with all Democrats and several vulnerable Republicans (lobbied by Defense Secretary James Mattis), voted down an amendment to deny medically necessary treatment to trans military personnel. The move came just before Trump launched his bid to outright ban trans people from the military.
Fighting hard in Texas, trans activists and their allies beat back a draconian trans “bathroom bill” in August.
At the ballot box, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in November’s “blue political wave ” in the state. Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham made history becoming the first trans woman and trans man, respectively, elected to the Minneapolis City Council. And Tyler Titus, in winning a seat on the Erie County School Board, became the first out trans person elected to an office in Pennsylvania.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, along with their allies, weren’t about to let the assault on trans rights stop them from fighting on and marching forward.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions took action to allow employers to discriminate against gay, lesbian and bisexual workers.
In his opening statements during his Senate confirmation hearings in January, Sessions said, ”I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community.” He vowed to “ensure ... protecting their rights and their safety,” which he said would be “fully enforced.”
But that was clearly another lie he told, in addition to claiming he never met with Russians.
In July, Sessions’ Justice Department used precious time and federal expense to tell a federal appeals court, via a 36-page brief, that employers should legally have the right to fire gay, lesbian and bisexual people based on their sexual orientation. If employers deem homosexuality as immoral, the Justice Department brief implied, they should have to right to deny them a job or dismiss them.
The DOJ isn’t party to this case. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t invite it to file a brief. Sessions clearly decided to take it upon himself to influence the court, in a case in which a now deceased skydiver claimed he was fired from his job because he was gay. (His survivors have continued with the case, and a decision by the appeals court is expected in early 2018.)
According to the Center for American Progress, 10 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual people report having been fired because of their sexual orientation while a staggering 47 percent of transgender people have reported being fired based on their gender identity.
Religious theocrat and ardent homophobe Roy Moore lost the Alabama Senate race.
Even more empowering than Moore’s defeat, Democrat Doug Jones ― who has a gay son and supports marriage equality ― won the the December special election. LGBTQ Alabamians played a critical role in a nail-biter of an election.
That Moore, an accused molester of teenage girls, a white nationalist and an Christian extremist, came even close, should be cause for concern. Nonetheless, it was a major victory for LGBTQ people and all of the Resistance that the bigot Trump backed so forcefully went down in flames. Moore, twice kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court as chief justice for refusing to follow the rule of law, was a direct threat to LGBTQ people in Alabama and around the country.
His belief that homosexuality should be criminalized, that homosexuality was “evil” ― claiming, falsely, that it said so in the U.S. Constitution ― and his belief that laws are superseded by God put him at the forefront of a movement of Christian nationalism. White nationalists throughout the year joined forces with evangelical extremists in this movement, most prominently in October at the annual evangelical gathering known as the Values Voter Summit, where both Moore and former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon were star attractions and gave major speeches.
It’s a movement we’ll have to fight throughout 2018.
The Colorado baker who refused to serve a gay couple got a hearing from the Supreme Court. It made LGBTQ advocates nervous.
In December the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
It was stunning to many people that the court even took up the case of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, who refused ― claiming a violation of First Amendment religious rights ― to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig. Other similar cases in states with laws barring discrimination against LGBT people in public accommodations had been rejected for review by the high court after lower courts ruled against the businesses.
It could be that Gorsuch provided the necessary fourth vote for the high court take up a case. But, for whatever reason, it was there. And, after the questioning by the justices, progressive legal observers and LGBTQ advocates expressed concern ― some quite a bit ― about what the court will decide. The general consensus among journalists who cover legal issues is that the decision will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy. Judging by his history, many noted, that could mean he will side with the baker, even as he grilled both sides during the arguments.
Kennedy has been the court’s leader on gay equality, writing the decisions in landmark cases striking down sodomy laws, declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and, in 2015, legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide (the Obergfell case).
But it’s often forgotten that on another gay rights decision, Kennedy joined the majority in a 2000 ruling that the Boy Scouts could ban gay scouts and scoutmasters on First Amendment grounds.
Deciphering opinions from the justices’ questions is like reading tea leaves, especially when one or more appear equally hard on or sympathetic to both sides. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, some of the conservative justices may find that even if they want to favor the baker, they can’t do so without opening the door to discrimination against many other groups. Or they’ll find a way. We’ll know in a few months.
Whichever way the ruling goes, the case is another reminder of how tenuous LGBTQ rights are, and how we must, for a long time to come, always be in the fight.
In 2017, we learned we can never let our guard down. And, in a country in which the political reality can turn so rapidly, we must live in the Resistance.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile