For Trump, LGBT Rights Are Foreign Policy, Not a Domestic Concern

The president pledged to protect LGBT people, but instead has infringed on their rights domestically.
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Then-nominee Donald Trump holds an LGBT rainbow flag at a campaign rally in Colorado in October of 2016.

Then-nominee Donald Trump holds an LGBT rainbow flag at a campaign rally in Colorado in October of 2016.

Almost exactly three years after he stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and pledged to protect LGBT Americans, the president marked this June's Pride Month celebrations with another supposed affirmation of gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

"Let us also stand in solidarity with the many LGBT people who live in dozens of countries worldwide that punish, imprison, or even execute individuals," Trump tweeted. "My Administration has launched a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality and invites all nations to join us in this effort!"

The pronouncements bookend a miserable three years for Trump on LGBT rights. Since taking office, Trump announced on Twitter that he would bar transgender Americans from serving in the United States armed forces; nominated judicial nominees with distinctly anti-LGBT records; beat back protections for transgender students attending schools that receive federal funding; rolled back protections for transgender employees under current civil rights law; sought to define gender on the basis of immutable biological features in a move that could legally categorize trans Americans out of existence; and, as recently as last week, ordered U.S. embassies not to fly the rainbow Pride flag. As German Lopez at Vox put it after the president's first year in office, Trump's RNC stance on LGBT rights was "a giant con."

Well, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Arguably, Trump has only ever invoked LGBT rights in the context of foreign policy, framing gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans as populations worth protecting under his awkward paternalist wing. In Trump's telling, the biggest threat to LGBT Americans is abroad; at home, they're doing just fine—it's God-fearing Christians who needs their religious rights protected.

That message has defined Trump's ostensibly "pro"-LGBT messages. His comments at the 2016 RNC didn't occur in a vacuum: They followed the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, carried out by 29-year-old Omar Mateen, a New York-born Afghan immigrant who reportedly pledged his allegiance to ISIS and expressed anti-gay sentiments to friends and family. And Trump's affirmation squarely identified LGBT Americans as, well, the enemy of his enemy.

"Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBTQ community," then-candidate Trump said. "As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology."

Indeed, Trump's recent comments—standing "in solidarity with the many LGBT people who live in dozens of countries worldwide that punish, imprison, or even execute gay and trans people"—is no standalone missive. It's a direct reference to his administration's global campaign, launched in February, to decriminalize homosexuality in foreign countries where it's currently illegal—a move that, as U.S. officials told NBC News at the time, was "a bid aimed in part at denouncing Iran over its human rights record."

Of course Trump's apparent affirmation of LGBT rights was a con; LGBT Americans, in his mind, don't have any real autonomy or agency on their own; they just exist as useful political props for the Trump administration to play moral arbiter on the world stage.

This means that, domestically, LGBT Americans aren't a priority so long as Trump continues to draw outsized support from evangelicals; in fact, he frames LGBT people as an existential threat against so-called "religious freedoms" (and, in the case of transgender Americans, unit cohesion and troop readiness in the U.S. military). But because "Make America Great Again" also means restoring America's position as a beacon of freedom and justice on the world stage, to Trump that means using the community as a prop in his campaign against Iran.

At his core, Trump may actually believe the note he added to his website to celebrate Elton John's domestic partnership in 2005: "If two people dig each other, they dig each other." But as president, Trump's approach to LGBT Americans is more akin to a con.

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