Trump Gaslights America on LGBTQ Rights While Second Trans Woman Dies in ICE Custody

Protesters gathered outside ICE's S.F. office Monday. Meanwhile, there is a strategy behind the administration's abysmally transphobic and antigay record.

Tuesday’s Google Doodle might be an elaborate, six-part video of sorts representing LGBTQ life in America since 1969, but one tragic fact cuts through the celebration: This Pride season, the Trump administration remains abysmally homophobic and transphobic, and no one should be fooled by its claims to the contrary.

On Saturday, the first day of Pride month, another trans women died in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), that troubled if not inherently vicious government agency with a poor record of keeping asylum-seekers and other migrants alive. Johana “Joa” Medina, 25, was a Salvadoran woman who had been detained in New Mexico for six weeks, suffering from complications from HIV/AIDS before she was finally admitted to a hospital in El Paso. In that time, officers determined that Medina had a credible fear of returning to El Salvador, and she had a hearing scheduled before an immigration judge. But she died on Saturday, June 1 — almost exactly a year after Roxána Hernández, a trans woman from Honduras, died in ICE custody after five days in one of its unnecessarily cold cells known as “ice boxes.”

From 1993 to 2010, it was against U.S. law for people with H.I.V. to enter the country, but that is no longer the case. Seropositive status has since been grounds for asylum “if an immigrant is able to show past persecution or fear of future persecution because of their HIV status.” Yet in spite of all the upbeat, nonspecific Doodles and the acknowledgements of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, here we are.

Protesters holding up pictures of the faces of two trans women who died in ICE custody, outside ICE’s S.F. building on Monday afternoon. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

On Monday, a group of protesters met outside ICE’s San Francisco facility on Sansome Street, for a small and peaceful demonstration calling attention to the plight of LGBTQ people who find themselves intercepted by ICE after fleeing violence and persecution. The mistreatment is not limited to queer people, of course: A 33-year-old Salvadoran man fell victim to an apparent seizure at the border on Sunday as well, and at least five children have died in ICE custody since December.

But Joa Medina’s death is especially perverse considering how, on that same weekend, the Trump administration pat itself on the back for its supposed commitment to LGBTQ rights. Spokesperson and serial lawbreaker Kellyanne Conway cherrypicked a nugatory factoid that Donald Trump is the first U.S. president to take office as a supporter of same-sex marriage, and the State Department also expressed a desire that foreign countries cease executing gay people. It’s hard not to cheer that last bit, although it may only be nominally noble, a pretext for a future war with Iran.

In fairness, it is true that, of all the groups this president has gone out of his way to demonize and lie about, he seems to have no problem with gay men. He calls women “disgusting” all the time, but he’s seldom if ever leaned into homophobic innuendo. But an absence of hateful tweets is hardly exculpatory in light of the government’s consistent misdeeds.

And they are many. The government has reinterpreted Title VII of the federal code to deny trans people appropriate health care — and invite discrimination against them. Trans people face homelessness in statistically enormous numbers, yet the Department of Housing and Urban Development chose to allow transphobia at shelters, too. Trans people are forbidden from serving in the military in the uniform of their true gender. The State Department’s forthcoming Commission on Unalienable Rights will use the theologically rooted term “natural law” as its basis, a clear dog-whistle and sop to people who believe the existence of LGBTQ people is an affront. Federal contractors may once again fire people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. States may rely on evangelical adoption services that deliberately refuse to place children in homes with two loving parents of the same gender (or in a Jewish home, for that matter). The administration is even forcing one of the Canadian-born sons of an American-Israeli male couple to undergo a DNA test to prove paternity and affirm a right to citizenship. And of course, the legal fight over a Chick-fil-A in San Antonio’s airport is a proxy battle for all of this.

Make no mistake: There is a strategy here, and it’s not just to invigorate bigots next November. It’s to project the veneer of running to the left of Joe Biden and other Democrats on LGBTQ issues while simultaneously keeping up such a sustained pace of awfulness that all these attacks and rollback fades into the background — for everyone, that is, except the people who get off on cruelty. They will always be there to cheer it on.

Trump won the 2016 election in part by depressing Democratic turnout. We won’t re-litigate the particulars of that campaign here, but Trump is the undisputed master at we might call “discourse pollution.” He throws sand in your face, then throws more sand in your face while denying he ever threw sand in your face, until your eyes hurt so badly you can’t really respond. Just as he denied ever calling Meghan Markle “nasty” in spite of clear video evidence of him calling Meghan Markle nasty, nothing with him is about truth or falsehood. All information is transactional, weaponized, and contingent.

In response, the Democratic Party has affirmed its commitment to LGBTQ equality, and presidential candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have unveiled sweeping policy proposals in that vein. But it’s simply true that it was Democratic president Bill Clinton who signed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the patently unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act into law, while Barack Obama hemmed and hawed for years about his “evolving” attitude toward same-sex marriage. (He only stopped lying publicly about supporting marriage equality after Joe Biden blurted out his personal support, probably Uncle Joe’s finest gaffe.)

Further, Democrats didn’t or couldn’t pass ENDA, a national Employment Non-Discrimination Act, while they held the presidency and considerable Congressional majorities from 2009 to 2011 — and the result is that in 20-freaking-19, four years after nationwide marriage equality, you can be fired for being a lesbian in half the states. Trump senses this, and his advisers can feed him the specifics as needed. If cornered, they will hammer home their point that the Democratic Party is no friend to LGBTQ Americans, just as they attempted to pry African-American support away from a post-Obama Democratic Party with that “what do you have to lose?” line. That gambit probably won the GOP almost no votes the last time around, but it may have swayed some people in key states not to vote at all. The strategy worked, and they’re certainly going to try it again.

The vicious policy reversals, the unconscionable migrant deaths — this is red meat for the base. But the real iceberg floating out there is apathy. And in the meantime, young trans women of color fleeing violence — some of the most marginalized people on Earth — are dying in our government’s hands, during Pride month.

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