By Masha Gessen October 11, 2017 The President campaigned on nostalgia. By reversing recent civil-rights gains for L.G.B.T. Americans, he signals his commitment to the past. Photograph by Evan Vucci / AP In Mississippi, House Bill 1523, also known as the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, also known as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, goes into effect this week. It explicitly legalizes discrimination if it is motivated by one of three beliefs: that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, that sexual relations can take place only within such a marriage, and that gender is an immutable biological characteristic.
The law was passed last year and immediately blocked by a federal judge, but last week a circuit court reversed the ruling. Doctors, lawyers, and adoption agencies, among others, are now licensed to discriminate on the basis of sexual and gender identity. Mississippi’s is the harshest of a recent wave of so-called religious-freedom laws; its enactment is only the latest blow to the rights of L.G.B.T. Americans in what has felt like a year of injuries. In February, the Trump Administration rescinded protections allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.
In May, President Trump signed an executive order directing his Attorney General to support and defend religious-freedom laws like the one in Mississippi. In July, Trump tweeted out a ban on transgender service members . In September, the Justice Department filed a Supreme Court brief in support of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. This month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued detailed guidelines based on Trump’s religious-freedom executive order and, separately, instructed U.
S. Attorneys to stop interpreting federal law as protecting transgender employees from discrimination on the basis of sex. This timeline is probably missing something; reversals in L.G.
B.T. rights have been unremitting. Less than a year ago—one week before the election—Trump unfurled a rainbow flag , albeit upside down, during a rally in Colorado. Someone had scribbled the words “LGBTs for Trump” on it. For much of his campaign, conventional wisdom held that Trump, the secular New Yorker that he is, would not pursue the anti-gay policies that his early supporter Sessions or his Vice-Presidential pick, Mike Pence, would advocate. But a strategy of homophobia has proved irresistible to Trump—and not just because of Pence and Sessions and the backing of the evangelical right. (“So many of them support what I do.
They support me from the evangelical-Christian standpoint,” the President said in an interview last weekend with Mike Huckabee.) In the nostalgic campaign that got him elected, Trump promised to take his voters back to an imaginary past in which they felt better, more secure, and generally more great than they do in the present. Nothing communicates Trump’s commitment to the past as effectively as reversals of L.
G.B.T. civil-rights progress—arguably the most rapid social change in American history. Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2015 granting equal status to same-sex marriages were rightly framed as breakthroughs: they had seemed nearly inconceivable just a few years earlier, a fantasy for some and a nightmare for others. It was inconceivable, too, that a Republican nominee for President would drape himself in a rainbow flag. The beliefs that the Mississippi law frames as religious—that marriage is a straight institution, that all people are born male or female and stay that way—are, in fact, many Americans’ intuition of the way things always were and should be.
The appeal of anti-queer gestures goes beyond the hard evangelical right, and probably includes some people whose best friends are gay. The appeal can get broader still. Several of the ongoing or upcoming L.G.B.T.
-rights battles will concern children. They always do: anyone who has studied the history of homophobic campaigns, or lived through one, knows that, in the end, it’s always about the children. Indeed, “Protect the Children” is the battle cry of xenophobes of all stripes, but this call carries particular potency in matters of sex and gender. Going back forty years, the first backlash effort against the gay movement in this country—Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which began in 1977 to oppose an anti-discrimination ordinance in Miami—trafficked in images of homosexual recruitment and child molestation. A decade later, following a campaign of panic centered on school materials and children’s books, the British Parliament banned local governments in England, Wales, and Scotland from “promoting homosexuality.” (Known as Section 28, the ban was repealed in 2003.
) Russia’s 2013 ban on “homosexual propaganda” followed a prolonged campaign against the imaginary threat of pedophilia and homosexual recruitment.
A week after the propaganda ban, Russia passed a law banning same-sex couples from adopting children.
I had to leave the country to protect my adopted son from state-appointed protectors. Those who lingered have fared worse: last month, for example, social services in the city of Yekaterinburg revoked the guardianship of two children because their mother had undergone top surgery and was blogging about transitioning. In the U.S.
, if a state with a religious-freedom law contracts out the placement of adoptive and foster children to private agencies, placements with L.G.B.T.
families tend to dry up—because the agencies often hold a religious affiliation. Last month, the A.C.L.
U. filed suit against the state of Michigan for turning away prospective adoptive and foster parents because of their sexual orientation.
If the Mississippi law is challenged again, the case will also likely concern adoption or foster placement. A proposed religious-freedom bill in Oklahoma solely concerns child-placement agencies.
Another kind of case concerns transgender high-school students’ right to use the bathrooms of their choice. A federal appeals court recently decided a Wisconsin case in favor of a transgender student, while a different appeals court must review a well-publicized North Carolina case, now that the Trump Administration has reversed course and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case . It seems both inevitable and ominous that the re-litigation of L.G.
rights will center on children. Much of the success of the American L.
G.B.T. movement in the last couple of decades has turned on avoiding confrontation with the perception of the homosexual threat to children.
The strategy has been either to desexualize gays by shifting the conversation to marriage and parenting or—brilliantly—to position transgender children as the ones in need of protection. As a result, advances in L.G.B.T. rights have occurred despite a parallel trend toward ever more policing of sex and an intensifying drive for the protection of children from nearly everything. The era of Trumpian reversal is expressed in terms of religious belief but driven by the desire to see children grow up in a world that their parents understand.
With the rhetoric of “religious freedom” ramping up, the strategic decoupling of gays from children will no longer hold. It’s going to get ugly. Masha Gessen, a staff writer, has written several books, including, most recently, “ The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia ,” which was short-listed for the National Book Award in 2017..