A Queer Exemption? What Trump’s Presidency Means for LGBTQ Politics

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Clare Sears*

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was characterized by raging rambling speeches and late-night belligerent tweets that threatened and mocked multiple groups of people. Undocumented immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, and women were frequently targeted—LGBTQ people were not. In a campaign marked by hypermasculine posturing, blatant misogyny, and sexual boasts and accusations, Trump’s decision to pass over a constituency marked by sexual and gender differences is striking. In this post, I reflect on Trump’s queer exemption and consider what his presidency will mean for LGBTQ politics. Specifically, I ask: How can we make sense of Trump’s restrained anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in relation to his persistent anti-LGBTQ actions?

Clearly, Trump’s failure to treat LGBTQ people as a political punching bag does not make him an ally, despite his occasional claims to the contrary. As presidential candidate and president-elect, Trump has consistently supported people and policies that will devastate queer and trans communities. Two examples will suffice:

  • Mike Pence: Trump’s selection of Mike Pence for vice-president provides a particularly stark indicator of his disregard for LGBTQ issues. It is no secret that Pence is a blatantly homophobic evangelical Christian conservative, who views homosexuality as a choice that undermines God’s will and heralds “societal collapse” (U.S. Congress 2006, p. 14796). As Governor of Indiana, Pence passed a “religious freedom law” that legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people; he also oversaw funding cuts for HIV testing sites and a state ban on needle exchange that led to one of the worst domestic HIV outbreaks in recent times. As a member of Congress, Pence took a similar stand against effective public health interventions by opposing funding for HIV prevention programs that featured queer sex-positive messages. He also opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” supported a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, and advocated “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. Trump will likely grant unprecedented decision-making power to Pence, making his virulent anti-LGBTQ agenda all the more terrifying.
  • State-Level Discrimination: Trump also backs state discrimination against LGBTQ people. During his campaign, he announced support for North Carolina’s House Bill 2, a state law that overturns municipal anti-discrimination ordinances protecting LGBTQ people and forces transgender people to use public restrooms that diverge from their gender identity. According to Pence, Trump will also rescind a White House directive that advises public schools to treat transgender students according to their gender identity, rather than the gender assigned at birth, or risk violating federal sex discrimination law. In both cases, Trump paid lip service to the goal of equality but argued that states have the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people as they see fit.

Although Trump invokes limitations on federal power to justify inaction on anti-LGBTQ discrimination, he is more than happy to exert federal muscle in other realms. When it comes to immigration policy, law-and-order politics, and health insurance coverage, for example, Trump proposes significant reforms and rollbacks that pose a deadly threat to millions, including LGBTQ people. Indeed, several of Trump’s signature proposals directly target social movements led by queer people of color.

  • DACA: Throughout his campaign, Trump emphasized his plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary protection to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, allowing them to attend school, obtain work permits, and receive temporary reprieve from deportation. Queer undocumented youth led the movement for this reform, mobilizing within and against mainstream advocacy organizations that often opposed their radical tactics. Their efforts paid off in 2012, when President Obama established DACA by executive order. Over 741,500 young people have signed up for the program, many of them LGBTQ. If Trump’s plans materialize, thousands of undocumented LGBTQ youth will be caught up in the dragnet, facing mass arrest by ICE officials, incarceration in immigration detention facilities, and deportation to countries they barely know.
  • Law and Order: As public awareness of anti-Black police violence reaches new heights, Trump has taken a stand against Black Lives Matter, the social movement founded by three black queer women. Using barely coded racist rhetoric, Trump has vowed to end “the war on our police” and propagated a dystopian vision of US cities wracked by gun-toting criminals and murderous immigrants. Positioning himself as a law-and-order leader who will “make America safe again,” Trump has promised to reinstitute stop-and-frisk policing, increase police access to military-grade weaponry, and destabilize sanctuary cities. These proposals directly threaten LGBTQ people, particularly those who are black or brown, poor, homeless, and/or involved in street economies (sex work, drug sales, unlicensed vending). Multiple studies show that LGBTQ people are overrepresented in street-based populations and suffer police harassment at elevated rates. In particular, transgender women and homeless queer youth of color will bear the brunt of Trump-era militarized policing.
  • Affordable Care Act: Trump has made clear his intention to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which provides healthcare to 20 million individuals, including one million LGBTQ people. If he succeeds, these people will lose health insurance as well as legal protections that are particularly valuable to transgender folks and those living with HIV. These protections prevent insurers from (a) discriminating on the grounds of gender identity, (b) denying coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition (including HIV and “gender dysphoria”), and (c) imposing annual and lifetime caps on coverage that harm people with chronic costly conditions (such as HIV). Under Trump’s presidency, LGBTQ people will face increased discrimination, illness, and death.

Given Trump’s support of politicians and policies that will devastate LGBTQ communities, what are we to make of his decision to exempt LGBTQ people from his trademark rhetorical attacks? Moreover, what are we to make of his occasional pro-gay statements, such as the speech he delivered at the Republican National Convention, where he spoke of LGBTQ people as “wonderful Americans” who deserved to be protected from violence? Some observers applauded Trump’s words, noting that he was the first Republican to speak positively of LGBTQ people while accepting the party’s presidential nomination. A closer look at Trump’s speech, however, reveals a troubling context that sheds light on the relationship between his pro-LGBTQ rhetoric and anti-LGBTQ actions.

During his RNC acceptance speech, Trump spoke of LGBTQ people when addressing the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which had occurred the previous month. The shooter, Omar Mateen, attacked the gay nightclub on its “Latin night” and most of the 49 people killed were queer Latinx clubgoers. In his RNC speech, Trump described the victims as “wonderful Americans [who] were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist” and vowed to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” Omar Mateen was not foreign and his connections to terrorism were minimal, but this did not stop Trump from linking his support for LGBTQ people to his anti-Islam nationalist agenda. Clearly, Trump was exploiting the deadliest act of anti-LGBTQ violence in US history for political gain, but he was also testing a particular political formation—pro-gay/anti-Muslim—that will likely resurface throughout his presidency.

In her 2007 book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar refers to this formation as homonationalism, denoting the ways that nation-states incorporate certain queer subjects (typically white cisgender men) to mark the border between “gay friendly” Western democracies and “homophobic” Islamic nations. According to Jin Haritaworn (2015), this process is in full swing in European cities such as Berlin, where neoliberal governments adopt punitive policies against Muslim immigrants under the guise of promoting diversity and protecting LGBTQ communities. Far-right political parties in Europe are now following a similar path, promoting “Western values” such as gay rights to win support for their populist agendas rooted in white supremacy, nationalism, and anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim violence. Trump’s strategic mention of LGBTQ people in his acceptance speech suggests a similar development on the US political stage that we need to monitor closely in the months to come.

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References and Further Readings
Haritaworn, J. 2015. Queer Lovers and Hateful Others: Regenerating Violent Times and Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mogul, J.L., A.J. Ritchie, and K. Whitlock. 2011. Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
Puar, J.K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Spade, D. 2011. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law. New York: South End Press.
U.S. Congress. 2006. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 109th Congress, Second Session. Volume 152, Part 11. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

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*Clare Sears is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at San Francisco State University. Her research and teaching interests include critical criminology, queer theory, transgender studies, historical methods, and disability studies. Sears is author of the book Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Duke University Press, 2015) and coeditor of a special issue of Social Justice on sexuality and criminalization.

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