The Trump administration has made no pretense about its hostility to human rights since Donald Trump took office in January. Last week, in the span of a few hours, it administered a particularly nasty one-two punch against the LGBT community in particular.
Trump’s intention to bar transgender people from serving in the military and the Justice Department’s assertion that there is no official protection from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation showed again how far the president is willing to go to delegitimize entire groups of people simply for being who they are.
Gradually eroding the rights of specific groups of people to marginalize them is a chilling tactic, and one that happens too many times around the world with disastrous results. There are 76 countries that criminalize sexual activity between adults of the same sex. And Russia, in particular, shows how incremental chips away at rights can lead to even worse repression.
Here in the U.S., it seems like Trump is trying to go back to a time when the laws of the land made it functionally impossible for LGBT people to fully own their identity. If your livelihood depends on hiding who you love, and if you’re prevented from serving your country based solely on who you are, it is not just discrimination: It is a fundamental denial of your humanity.
Even more insidious is the Department of Justices’s argument that undermines one of the most effective mechanisms that help enforce antidiscrimination laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has existed as part of the federal government since 1965 to investigate cases of workplace discrimination and enforce protections granted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over the years, the EEOC has determined that these protections extend to sex discrimination, discrimination based on gender identity, and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
However, in a legal brief filed this week, the Justice Department not only claims that discrimination based on sexual orientation should not be covered, but that the EEOC “does not speak for the United States.” In other words, the primary government agency meant to protect against discrimination in the workplace is toothless.
While there is still much more work to be done, the United States has made critical gains when it comes to LGBT rights. The mere suggestion of these policies threatens to undo what took decades to achieve.
Even if the military does not enforce the suggestion from its commander in chief to expel thousands of transgender service members from its ranks, or if the courts rule in favor of protection for sexual orientation, the message is clear: Our president views LGBTI people as less-than-deserving of the same kind of rights as everyone else.
We’ve seen this attitude before — and we’ve seen the devastating consequences of it. Russia legalized homosexuality following the collapse of the Soviet Union but has marginalized the LGBTI community in a number of ways. Rights organizations have been harassed and intimidated; Pride marches are shut down or prevented; and same-sex couples and their families are not afforded the same rights as others.
In 2013, the Russian government passed a law banning “the propaganda of non-traditional relations to minors.” This sweeping language allowed for the persecution and oppression of all manner of gatherings and actions, and implied that LGBTI people are a dangerous presence just by virtue of their existence.
Since then, attacks on and harassment of LGBTI people in Russia has only increased. The most recent and extreme embodiment of this is the horrifying disappearances and torture of gay men in Chechnya, where the Chechen leader infamously claimed that gay people never existed in the region. These horrific attacks against gay men didn’t come from nowhere: They came from a government-endorsed dehumanization and other-ing of LGBT people.
This is not as dire as Chechnya. But the systemic dehumanization of and discrimination against LGBT people pushed by the president and his administration sound eerily familiar. The right to live without fear and to work freely without having to hide who you are is an essential human right that cannot be eroded by any government. After years of hard-won legal battles to have this right officially recognized, we cannot afford to go back. The past week’s actions by the Trump administration may be rhetoric at this point, but they give us a glimpse into the administration’s intentions, and they must never be allowed to become reality.
TARAH DEMANT is director of Amnesty International USA's Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program.