The political career of Jeff Sessions, one of the most anti-LGBTQ+ people ever to hold public office, may finally be over.
Sessions was trying to reclaim his U.S. Senate seat representing Alabama, and he faced former college football coach Tommy Tuberville in a runoff for the Republican nomination, after no candidate won a majority in the March primary. But Tuberville, endorsed by Donald Trump, trounced Sessions. The Associated Press called the race for Tuberville about 8:20 p.m. local time, when Tuberville was leading Sessions 63 percent to 37 percent with about half of the state's precincts reporting.
Trump had been furious at Sessions, his first attorney general, for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Sessions resigned at Trump’s request in November 2018, having served less than two years in the position.
Tuberville will face Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in November. Jones won a special election in 2017 to fill the Senate seat after Sessions joined the Trump administration. In that election Jones defeated former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, known for his virulently anti-LGBTQ+ record, after several women accused Moore of sexual misconduct. Moore ran for the Republican Senate nomination in March’s primary but finished far out of the running, leaving the top two candidates, Sessions and Tuberville, to go into the runoff. Jones is an LGBTQ+ rights supporter and the father of a gay son, and he is considered vulnerable in conservative Alabama.
As a U.S. senator from Alabama and in previous positions, including as a federal prosecutor in the state, Sessions compiled a long record of being anti-LGBTQ and antichoice. His nomination for a federal judgeship in the 1980s was rejected because of, among other things, accusations of racism (from no less than Coretta Scott King, for one) and apparent sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan (Sessions has since said a positive remark he made about the KKK was a joke).
He racked up a string of zeroes from the Human Rights Campaign in his long career in the Senate, where he held a seat from 1997 until becoming Trump's attorney general in 2017. As a senator, he voted to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage; spoke out against the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling; voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; is a cosponsor of the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow discrimination against LGBT people and others in the name of “religious freedom”; voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation, gender, and disability; and voted against repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sessions also opposed the Voting Rights Act, voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, and opposes immigration reform.
As one of his first actions as U.S. attorney general, in February 2017, he joined in rescinding guidance issued by the Justice and Education departments under President Barack Obama advising schools to let transgender students use the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice, in addition to calling them by their preferred names and pronouns. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went along too, although she was reported to be reluctant about it.
Under Sessions, the Justice Department has said federal civil rights law doesn’t ban anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the department had interpreted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban such discrimination as part of its prohibition on sex discrimination, and several courts have interpreted it this way as well. But Sessions begged to differ, and the Justice Department has even argued in court that the law shouldn’t be read this way, continuing to do so under Sessions's successor, William Barr. But this year the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act does cover such discrimination in employment, although subsequent rulings established a broad exemption for religious employers. The department also continues to defend Trump's transgender military ban.
Sessions has also said the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips, is not a hate group, as it has been called by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He even gave a closed-door speech to the group on the topic of religious freedom, which in his interpretation seems to be more about the freedom to discriminate than anything else.
In 2017, under a directive from Trump, Sessions released guidelines for federal government bodies on enforcing religious liberty that threaten the rights of LGBTQ+ people, women, and more. Among the guidance memo's provisions are "Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers' religious precepts" and "As a general matter, the federal government may not condition receipt of a federal grant or contract on the effective relinquishment of a religious organization’s exemptions or attributes of its religious character." In 2018, he announced the formation of a Religious Liberty Task Force to implement the guidelines.
That’s a roundup of Sessions’s actions targeting LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive freedom. His Justice Department was guilty of a multitude of other sins as well. It has been separating immigrant children from their parents at the borders, and Sessions has used the Bible to justify this action. He reversed the department’s Obama-era policy of not using privately run prisons, which are often criticized for civil rights violations. And he backed off on the defense of voting rights against state laws that tend to depress voting by people of color. Sessions also lied during his confirmation hearings for attorney general, something most Republicans have conveniently forgotten about that.
Tuberville, who coached at Alabama’s Auburn University and other schools, is a solid right-winger, whose website touts his support of the Second Amendment and Trump’s border wall, calls abortion “infanticide,” and states his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
But while Tuberville describes himself as a Christian conservative, his site doesn’t mention LGBTQ+ issues, and he doesn’t have the paper trail of a Jeff Sessions or a Roy Moore. He has denounced the presence of drag queens in a Christmas parade, but he also has said he’s known football players who came out as gay after their careers ended and has not publicly stated a problem with it. “He never looked at them differently, but he wonders what they were going through while a part of the team, whether they were comfortable,” CBS Sports reported in 2014, upon the coming-out of Michael Sam, then a player at the University of Missouri (not one of Tuberville’s teams).
So Tuberville may be a very slight improvement over Sessions — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse, except maybe Roy Moore — although most LGBTQ+ people and allies are undoubtedly hoping for a Doug Jones victory in November.