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Jones Win A Rare Spark in Bleak Year

by Lisa Keen

In a Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 file photo, Doug Jones is greeted by a supporter before speaking during an election-night watch party in Birmingham, Ala.
In a Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 file photo, Doug Jones is greeted by a supporter before speaking during an election-night watch party in Birmingham, Ala.  (Source:John Bazemore, AP )

2017 was the year the 1960s tried to make a comeback. There was the resurgence in white nationalist activity, exposure of widespread sexual harassment, and renewed concern about the use of nuclear weapons. The new president, Donald Trump, fanned perilous fires. He also tried to make friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin while an unfolding investigation was showing the Trump campaign had met with Russian officials as Russian operatives hacked into and leaked damaging information from the campaign of Trump's 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.

There was fierce resistance to the white nationalist uprising. Crowds of counterprotesters met them on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and other towns around the country, including San Francisco and Berkeley. And large numbers of women (and some men) came forward to point a finger at men in powerful places who had sexually assaulted or harassed them. Pro-LGBT legal groups doubled down to fight efforts by right-wing groups to find loopholes in the law that could open the floodgates to discrimination against LGBT people. And the pro-LGBT groups sought new ways to use existing laws to provide protection from such discrimination.

By year's end, the culture war, which in the United States has frequently included a prominent conflict over equal rights for LGBT people, had intensified and seemed to reach a standoff. Many political observers looked to a U.S. Senate race in Alabama - one to fill the seat vacated when Senator Jeff Sessions became attorney general - to break the tie. The two Senate candidates were Roy Moore, a virulently anti-LGBT Republican who was accused of sexual contact with teen girls, and Doug Jones, a quietly progressive Democrat. Right-wing evangelicals, staunch Republican partisans, and Trump backed Moore; progressives, women, African-Americans, and LGBT organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, backed Jones.

Jones won in an upset, and that vote in Alabama seemed to many people to signal a change in voters throughout the country. It gave hope to many LGBT leaders that control of Congress might also change in 2018.

Here is a closer look at 10 stories that made 2017 such a tumultuous year for LGBT people.

Alabama Senate Election

The special election in Alabama in December became a bellwether. In a surprise development, the heavily and historically Republican state chose Jones, a progressive Democrat, over Moore, an ultra-conservative Republican, to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sessions' departure to the attorney general's seat. This was not a simply partisan or ideological race. Moore's claim to being a staunch Christian with reliably conservative, family-oriented values was shredded by persistent widespread allegations that, in his 30s, he had sexual contact with two females under the age of consent in Alabama (16) and five who were between 16 and 18.

LGBT people had plenty of reason to oppose Moore's ascension to the Senate long before those revelations drew national attention to the state. Going back more than a decade, Moore was quick and comfortable with expressing his opposition to LGBT people. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on sexual relations between same-sex partners, Moore, then the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, said he thought such relations should be illegal. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on marriage for same-sex couples, Moore refused to comply. And during his contentious campaign this year for the Senate seat, he blamed his troubles on LGBT people trying to ruin his campaign and "change our culture."

Moore, in the Senate, would have been a reliable vote against LGBT people in any context. And Moore had the endorsement of Trump, who won 62 percent of the Alabama vote in 2016, despite his own problem with widespread allegations of sexual misconduct.

But on December 12, by a narrow margin, voters in Alabama elected Jones, who pledged to "fight hate and discrimination in all forms." Some commentators said that the result indicated voters are beginning to turn against Republicans and Trump. They predict next November's congressional midterm races could change the majority in the Senate, maybe even the House, from Republican to Democrat. It's the kind of change that could be as dramatically good for the rights of LGBT people as this past year has been bad.

Trump Inaugurated

Trump was sworn in as president January 20. As a candidate, Trump made a few supportive comments about the LGBT community during his campaign, but those remarks essentially disappeared after his inauguration. The only positive things he had to say about LGBT people in his first year were statements purporting to explain why he sought a ban on Muslims coming into this country (he said it would protect LGBT people from such attacks as the one on an Orlando nightclub in 2016). Many LGBT people felt more like they needed protection from Trump. He chose heads of departments with notorious anti-LGBT histories who rolled back many of the pro-LGBT policies established under President Barack Obama. He appointed federal judges who disagreed with landmark pro-equality Supreme Court decisions; he initiated and directed a ban on transgender people in the military; he repeatedly praised Putin, whose anti-LGBT policies have escalated in recent years; and he used the most high-profile bully pulpit in the world to give solace and encouragement to extreme right-wing protests that included anti-LGBT chants and signs.

Resurgence of White Nationalists

One of the loudest chants by white supremacists staging a violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in August was "Fuck you, faggots." The driver of the car who plowed into a group of counterprotesters was associated with a right-wing group that called LGBT people "sexual deviants." Trump offered words of support for the right-wing protesters who chanted and carried signs with messages that were hostile to African-Americans, immigrants, and LGBT people.

"Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me," said Trump. "Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch." He blamed counterprotesters for the violence. And soon, there seemed to be an uptick in incidents of hate against LGBT people, women, Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, and Latin Americans - many in very public places, like major league ballparks and public schools. A Southern Poverty Law Center study found that 37 percent of 1,094 hate crimes recorded during the first 34 days after Trump's election "directly referenced either President-elect Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks about sexual assault."

Trump Administration Guts Policies

Under Trump, the Department of Education, with the Department of Justice, withdrew an advice letter to schools that had suggested that transgender students were protected by Title IX. The Department of Health and Human Services announced it would no longer interpret the Affordable Care Act to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and it removed questions from at least two federal surveys that would have identified data specific to LGBT people. The Department of Housing and Urban Development canceled a survey to determine the prevalence of homelessness among LGBT people, and removed from its website a link that instructed emergency shelters on sensitivity to transgender people seeking help. The Census Bureau removed any mention of LGBT people among potential questions for the all-important upcoming surveys.

Transgender Military Ban

In July, Trump announced on Twitter that the Department of Defense should ban transgender people in the military. A month later, he issued an official memorandum, directing the DOD to do so. But the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBT legal groups jumped into action, filing lawsuits and requesting injunctions to stop the order from taking effect. By year's end, at least three federal judges issued preliminary injunctions to stop the Trump order from taking effect until the courts can decide whether the ban is unconstitutional. The Department of Justice is seeking stays of those injunctions.

Gay Ambassador Still Pending

In one of the few pieces of good news involving Trump and the LGBT community this year, the president nominated a gay political operative, Ric Grenell, as ambassador to Germany. But at year's end, the full Senate had yet to vote on Grenell's nomination, and reports indicated Democrats were behind the stall.

Court Fights Over Title VII

Two federal appeals courts ruled this year that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act should be interpreted to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. But in December, the U.S. Supreme Court refused an appeal brought by an employee in Georgia trying to establish the right to protection under that law. LGBT activists say the fight is not yet over and that other cases will likely come before the Supreme Court to test the issue in the future.

Trump Guts Executive Orders

Trump issued an executive order in March that revoked one by Obama that had required companies winning contracts from the federal government to demonstrate they are in compliance with 14 federal laws, including those that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender stereotyping, and gender identity. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Trump's executive order would make it "extremely difficult" to force federal contractors to comply with non-discrimination laws.

Sessions Becomes Attorney General

As Alabama's U.S. senator, Sessions established a reputation of hostility toward LGBT people. So when Trump named him to head the Department of Justice, the LGBT community braced for trouble. In short order, Sessions withdrew the Obama administration's efforts to defeat an anti-LGBT law in North Carolina, opposed in court the application of Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination in employment to protect LGBT employees, issued a memo stating that the administration's policy would not recognize sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, and issued a second memo suggesting that individuals and businesses could exercise their religious beliefs without limitations while doing business with government.

Supreme Court

After Congress refused to consider Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, the LGBT community braced itself for a Scalia-like replacement from Trump and the Republican-dominated Senate. And the president's nominee, Neil Gorsuch, filled that bill. But what LGBT legal activists did not anticipate was that one the champions of equal rights for LGBT people on the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, would begin to falter. First, he voted with a majority in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer to say that church schools should receive state grants the same as non-church schools. Lambda Legal said the ruling amounted to state support for discrimination based on sexual orientation. Then, six months later, during oral arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, Kennedy appeared to favor the idea that a business could simply claim a vague religious belief hostile to LGBT people to gain a right to refuse service to them. The decision in that case - and future prospects for Kennedy's record on LGBT rights - will be revealed sometime next year.


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