Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

July 28 2017 12:50 PM

On Sexuality, the Law Still Caters to the Norms of Public Disgust

We tend to assume that law is objective and disembodied, but the story of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K. shows that, like the people who create it, it is in fact an emotional creature, animated by visceral human feelings – and as far as sexuality is concerned, the chief emotion at work is often disgust.

You don’t have to look very hard to see how much it was disgust, not a concern for morality or justice, that shaped the laws governing homosexual activity. In fact, in the U.K., homosexuality was long deemed so perverse that to even speak of it in public would stain your character.

July 28 2017 10:53 AM

The Navy Doctor Who Pushed for Trans Troops to Serve Openly Pushes Back on Trump’s Ban

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that transgender people would be barred from serving in the United States military “in any capacity.” To justify his impulsive decision—which he made without consulting the Pentagon—Trump cited “the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”

To gauge the accuracy of this justification, I spoke with Jesse Ehrenfeld, one of the country’s foremost experts on both transgender health care and military service. Ehrenfeld, a practicing physician, serves as the director of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Program for LGBTI Health and as the secretary of the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. He has worked with hundreds of trans patients and helps to train medical students and physicians across the country in LGBTQ health care needs. Ehrenfeld is also a commander in the Navy and serves as a medical reserve officer. In 2015, he helped to set in motion the repeal of the ban on open transgender service that Trump is attempting to reverse.

I spoke with Ehrenfeld on Thursday about his work with trans troops, the looming threat of a new ban, and many misconceptions about open transgender service. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

How were you involved in the effort to lift the ban on transgender troops?

I had the incredible pleasure of serving in Afghanistan from 2014 to 2015. When I was there, I helped provide care to a transgender airman named Logan. We became friendly and I learned a lot about his experiences. In February of 2015, I found myself sitting with Logan at a troop town hall for our new Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I turned to Logan and said, “if you could ask the secretary any question, what would it be?” He told me he’d ask him about open transgender service. So I stood up and asked the defense secretary for his thoughts on transgender service. He gave a very favorable response.

After I got home from my deployments, I was asked to provide input on the health care needs for trans service members to a group that the secretary set up to study the issue. Given my role as a uniformed person as well as a physician with expertise in LGBT health, I think I was able to provide helpful info that was credible and useful to the process.

July 27 2017 12:27 PM

Joint Chiefs: We Won’t Implement a Trans Ban Until Trump Tells Us What His Tweets Mean

On Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford informed the military that the Pentagon would not implement a ban on transgender troops “until the President's direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.” Until that point, Dunford wrote, there “will be no modifications to the current policy,” and “we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.”

About 15,000 transgender troops are currently serving openly in the United States military. In June of 2016, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that already-serving transgender troops could come out without fear of discharge. He also established a plan to let openly transgender people enroll in the military within one year. On Wednesday morning, however, Trump declared on Twitter that “the United States Government will not accept or allow” transgender individuals “to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” Trump’s proclamation raised the real possibility that the thousands of transgender troops in uniform might be purged.

But Trump made his announcement without consulting the Pentagon. He reportedly did not even discuss the issue with his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who has strongly supported open transgender service in the past. Trump’s sudden decision threatened to jettison years of careful planning and preparation on the part of the military. It also left military leaders in a lurch, caught between the president’s tweets and formal policy. The Navy has clarified that, at least for now, transgender troops may still serve and receive transition-related medical care; Dunford’s letter makes clear that remains official policy in every branch of the armed forces.

July 26 2017 9:49 PM

Trump Administration Argues Federal Civil Rights Law Does Not Protect Gay Employees

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination against gay and bisexual employees. The DOJ’s brief was not solicited by the court or any party to the case. Rather, in an unusual move, the Trump administration elected to weigh in with an aggressively anti-gay stance, arguing that gay Americans have no protection against workplace discrimination under federal law. Its decision is unsurprising in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vigorous opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Title VII does not explicitly outlaw sexual orientation discrimination in employment. However, it does forbid “discrimination … because of sex.” which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interprets to encompass anti-gay discrimination. For at least 15 years, many federal courts have agreed, and in April, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Title VII does, indeed, protect gay employees. Both the 7th Circuit and the EEOC relied on three theories of sex discrimination:

1. “But-for” sex discrimination

This theory holds that anti-gay discrimination qualifies as sex discrimination because, but for the gay person’s sex, she would not be discriminated against. Imagine, for example, that a homophobic employer fires a female worker because she marries a woman. But for that worker’s sex, she wouldn’t have been fired: Her boss has no issue with men marrying women, only women marrying women. The employee’s sex was fundamental to the discrimination she suffered—so it can therefore aptly be described as sex discrimination.

2. Sex stereotyping

The Supreme Court held in 1989’s Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins that sex stereotyping is a form of sex discrimination. Thus, when an employer mistreats a worker because she fails to conform to certain gender norms, it has engaged in discrimination “because of sex.” Initially, sex stereotyping was applied to masculine women and feminine men. But as the 7th Circuit pointed out, gay people are “the ultimate case of failure to conform” to sex stereotypes, which, in America, have historically held that men should date only women and women should date only men. By intimately associating with people of the same sex, gay individuals violate this stereotype. And so, when they are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, they have suffered sex stereotyping.

July 26 2017 2:36 PM

How Giving Up a Pet Raised Particular Concerns for One Queer Family

“We have to put her down.” That thought hung thickly between David and me, moments after our dog bit one of our kids’ friends. The weeks following that harrowing incident involved tears, research, and second-guessing—all leading to the most difficult conversations we’ve yet had with our 12-year-old twin daughters.

July 26 2017 10:45 AM

In a Stunningly Cruel and Unjustified Move, Trump Bans Transgender Military Service

On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump announced in a series of tweets that he would bar transgender people from serving openly in the United States military. As justification, Trump cited “the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” The Pentagon was reportedly not briefed about Trump’s decision in advance.

In fact, the cost of transgender service is known to be quite low, and the integration of transgender troops in foreign militaries has had no effect on unit cohesion, morale, or force readiness. That is why, in 2016, then–Secretary of Defense Ash Carter established a plan to let openly transgender individuals enroll in the military and allowed already-serving transgender troops to come out without fear of discharge. The enrollment part of the plan was meant to be “completely implemented no later than July 1, 2017.” Once Trump took office, though, religious conservatives lobbied him to bar trans troops, arguing that they posed an immoral and expensive threat to the military. The anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council and some congressional Republicans reminded Trump that his socially conservative base opposed Carter’s policy. In late June, Secretary of Defense James Mattis approved a six-month delay, citing the “views of the military leadership and of the senior civilian officials now arriving in the Department.”

At that point, it was clear that Carter’s plan was in serious trouble. On July 13, the House of Representatives narrowly voted down an amendment that would bar the military from providing transition-related medical treatment to transgender troops. Vice President Mike Pence championed the amendment but Mattis, who supports trans service, vigorously lobbied against it. Two dozen Republicans ultimately opposed the measure, drawing ire from evangelicals and anti-LGBTQ activists. (Every Democrat also voted no.) It seems likely that following this vote, Trump realized he could seize upon the issue to rally his base.

July 25 2017 2:40 PM

A New Survey Claiming That LGBT People Are Less Racist Misses the Reality of Racism in the Queer Community

For black and brown people in the U.S., racism is sadly a part of our daily experience. Whether we choose to cope with it, ignore it, or aggressively fight back, it’s always there—at work, in school, and in our own neighborhoods. But as a queer black man, nothing is more frustrating than when the racist rhetoric and actions come from within my own LGBT community—and believe me, it happens all the time. A recent article, however, would have us believe that there is minimal racism within the LGBT community, at least when compared to our heterosexual counterparts. While the author’s analysis comports with the survey he draws from, it does not reflect the reality of queer people of color’s experience. And worse, it may give white queers a false sense of accomplishment, when they should be focused on ridding themselves of their own indoctrinated biases that harm LGBT people of color.

July 21 2017 5:59 PM

What the Appointment of LGBTQ-Friendly Anthony Scaramucci Means for the White House

The appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director introduces a weird and interesting wrinkle into Donald Trump’s sporadic efforts to position himself as a champion of gay rights. It could also be an indication that the administration’s social conservatives, led by Vice President Mike Pence, will see themselves increasingly marginalized.

It’s easy to forget now, but at certain points during the 2016 campaign, Trump presented himself as more LGBTQ-friendly than Hillary Clinton. Following the Pulse shooting in June 2016, Trump tweeted: “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.” A few months later, he held up an upside-down rainbow flag that read “LGBTs for TRUMP” at an event. He declaredthat transgender people should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate” and said that Caitlyn Jenner could use whatever bathroom she preferred at Trump Tower. And he had his friend Peter Thiel speak at the GOP convention.

None of this was particularly surprising, since Trump seems to hold no clear personal animus toward LGBTQ people and professed his support for gay rights laws as early as 2000. But after his November victory, Trump outsourced many personnel decisions to the Republican Party and Vice President Pence. An outspoken evangelical conservative, Pence stacked the transition team with anti-LGBTQ zealots (and Thiel, probably to appease Trump). When Trump began appointing White House advisers like Steve Bannon and cabinet members like Jeff Sessions, it became clear that an aversion to LGBTQ rights would not be disqualifying in this administration.

July 20 2017 3:25 PM

The Senate Just Confirmed an Anti-Gay Blogger to the Federal Judiciary

The Trump administration’s assault on LGBTQ rights scored a major victory on Thursday when the Senate confirmed John K. Bush to the powerful 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bush, perhaps Trump’s most controversial nominee to the lower courts, has a long history of making homophobic and sexist comments during his years as an anonymous blogger. Yet every Republican senator (except the absent John McCain) voted to confirm him. Bush, who is 52, will serve a lifetime appointment.

Bush’s record overflows with offensive, archaic, and bizarre comments, many directed toward women and sexual minorities. In 2005, he used the word “faggot” in a speech to a private club, quoting Hunter S. Thompson. In 2008, he referred to then–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as “Mama Pelosi” and urged Congress to “gag the House speaker.” When the State Department introduced gender-neutral passport applications to accommodate same-sex couples, Bush complained in a 2011 blog post that the move was worthy of “outrage”—though “not Obamacare-level outrage.” He added that the change means “both parents are subservient to the nanny state—more precisely, a nanny Secretary of State.” Bush also credulously reported a story from World Net Daily, the discredited promulgator of birther conspiracies, alleging that then-Sen. Barack Obama played a role in the detention of a WND reporter in Kenya who’d been investigating the future president’s half-brother.

July 11 2017 11:49 AM

The Lonely, Heroic Work of a Gay Libyan Refugee Living in America

Late last week, in a West Village townhome, Hass Agili scrolled past the Facebook messages containing death threats and hate speech, past the harrowing notes disgracing him and his family, and tapped on a message from a college student living outside Tripoli. For privacy reasons, we’ll call him Ali. He’s 18 years old, and the cover photo on his Facebook profile is an image of Hass standing in front of the Statue of Liberty.

Their message chain is written in both Arabic and English, mixed with heart emojis and screenshots from secret LGBTQ Facebook pages with posts praising Hass. Exchanging messages with Hass, a gay Libyan who successfully gained refugee status and resettled in the United States, is like talking to a celebrity, says Ali. Ali asks Hass for advice on how he, too, can escape Libya, and wants to know what the U.S. Supreme Court ruling partially reinstating the travel ban means for potential refugees like him. Ali risks his life by sharing so much with Hass about how he survives as a gay person in Libya. If anyone were to find these messages, he would be outed and likely killed. Ali is just one of many gay Libyans now coming to Hass for help.

“They are really scared and desperate to get out,” said Hass.

Out of the nearly 85,000 refugees admitted to the US in 2016, Hass was the only Libyan, and there hasn’t been another since. He’s now 34 years old, living in New York City with a Social Security number and refugee status that expires this month. As required by law, Hass applied for a green card, and now he waits on the status of his application.

“I worry that the Trump administration and repercussions from the travel ban might affect my application. But nobody will tell you anything. There’s nothing I can do but wait and see,” said Hass.