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LGBTQ advocates demand more clarity from Democratic candidates on equality agenda

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Lorri L. Jean fears the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of LGBTQ rights to the point that it sometimes keeps her up at night.

With the din of impeachment drowning out other issues, the longtime activist and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center wonders when Democratic candidates are going to address it with more than a passing mention.

She’s far from alone.

At a time when the Trump administration is challenging protections for members of the LGBTQ community in spheres as divergent as elementary schools and hospitals, activists feel a sense of both frustration and urgency. They yearn for Democratic candidates to become more focused on discrimination, bigotry and violence toward members of the LGBT community as the 2020 election draws closer.

“We’ve never had a president or an administration that has reversed our gains as significantly,” said Jean, who was the lead plaintiff in a 1980 landmark lawsuit against Georgetown University to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “The next president is going to have to work very hard to restore what we have lost, and to ensure that those protections get embedded in federal laws so that the political winds can’t change them.”

The conversation about what those changes might look like with a Democrat in the White House begins Thursday night at a series of town halls that CNN is hosting in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign in Los Angeles from 7:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. ET.

“Never before in our history did we have so much to lose, because we had never gained so much,” Jean said. “Before Donald Trump was elected, we were making so much progress. Now, Donald Trump has been able to reverse so much of that progress from the very first action that (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos took — within literally weeks of the inauguration — to rescind protections for LGBT school children.” (In early 2017, the Trump administration withdrew Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms in public schools that corresponded with their gender identity.)

While candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris have touted their history advancing historic victories like same-sex marriage, in the activist community, that milestone has begun to feel like a distant memory — underscored by the oft-quoted saying that you can “get married on a Sunday and fired on Monday.”

Alphonso B. David, the president of Human Rights Campaign, said the Democratic hopefuls must be more specific — not just highlighting their past work on equality issues — but how they would try to reverse actions by the Trump administration within “every single branch of government to discriminate against LGBT people.”

“I think most of the candidates would brand themselves as being progressives, which is great. But we’re interested in digging deeper,” David said. “We’re seeing a fundamental erosion of our rights that range from the right to serve in the military to the right to receive healthcare.”

Hurdles in legislation and law

The desire for this kind of engagement comes as the battle over LGBTQ protections is unfolding at every level of government, from Congress to the courts to state legislatures across the country.

The marquee piece of legislation in the battle for LGBTQ rights, the Equality Act, which would create a federal law to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, passed the Democratic-led US House but is stalled in the US Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

The Supreme Court appeared deeply divided this week as they heard arguments on the question of whether federal civil rights law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex should also cover claims of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Trump administration has argued that current federal civil rights laws do not provide protections for employees who are fired or discriminated against because of their LGBTQ status, and that Congress would need to change the law to extend protections to that group. (The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that about 1 million American workers identify as transgender and 7.1 million identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual).

David noted that in 30 states “you run the risk of being fired or losing your housing or being denied access to public spaces, because of your LGBTQ status” because there is no state law to prevent that from happening.

“So, if the Trump administration has its way and you remove the current federal protections, we’re effectively saying, ‘If you live in any of those 30 states, you have absolutely no protection at all. None.’ Which is staggering,” David said, referencing the cases before the Supreme Court.

LGBTQ activists also point to some of the more subtle changes that the Trump administration and its allies have sought through federal regulations.

One regulatory change under consideration would remove gender identity and sexual orientation as a protected classification under the Affordable Care Act, they said. In practice, LGBTQ advocates fear these regulatory changes would remove the ability of a transgender person to get coverage, or transition-related care or even basic medical services.

In another example, the Department of Health and Human Services recently granted a waiver to the state of South Carolina that allows taxpayer funded foster-care agencies to refuse to perform certain services if they conflict with the organization’s religious values. One lesbian couple is challenging the provision in court after being turned away from a faith-based agency when they attempted to become foster parents in April.

The Trump administration said they had granted South Carolina’s request for the waiver because it “preserves all of the foster care agencies currently available for children in South Carolina by ensuring faith-based organizations can continue to serve this vulnerable population. It protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families.”

Other challenges ahead

Beyond the battles over legal protections in the courts and statehouses, advocates also want the Democratic presidential candidates to address what they would do to stem the tide of hate crimes, and provide greater protections for LGBTQ people who are experiencing violence in their communities.

Advocates at Human Rights Campaign tracked the murders of at least 26 transgender people last year. This year, that tally is already at 18 as concerns grow about the increase in violence against trans women of color.

David and other advocates believe the violence is tied to the toxic and polarizing rhetoric coming from the top — both from the Trump administration and its supporters on social media.

“Incentivized may be too strong a word, but they certainly validated bigotry and they have given people a license to discriminate,” David said. “I think that is a huge factor in the increase in violence. And it’s not only for LGBTQ. You look across the board, we’re seeing an increase in hate crimes against people of the Jewish faith, against black people, against Latinos. So, I think it all stems from an administration that has been spewing hate and venom and indifference.”

Mental health is also a topic that is likely to come up Thursday’s town hall. Research has long shown that the rate of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth is much higher than within the general population.

A 2018 study by the HRC Foundation and the University of Connecticut found that LGBTQ people were three to four times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide than non-LGBTQ people. Three-fourths of the bisexual, queer, pansexual and fluid-identified youth who participated in the study said they “usually” had felt feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness over the past week.

Jean noted that those are feelings experienced by many of the people who walk through the doors of the LA LGBT Center in Hollywood, which describes itself as the largest provider of LGBTQ services in the world with more than 42,000 people served per month.

“If I were going to identify one common thread among many of the clients who come to us — young people, seniors, everybody in between — it is that they have suffered from discrimination and bigotry and prejudice in our society and they come in feeling not worthy,” Jean said. “When you don’t feel like you’re a worthy human being, you don’t take care of yourself like you should. You often get in situations that can be harmful to you or you end up on the streets because your families kick you out.”

Homelessness among LGBTQ youth — a long-standing problem — has also been compounded in places like Los Angeles because of the high cost of housing.

Even well-funded non-profits like the LA LGBT Center are constantly at capacity, even as they are in the midst of building more than 100 new units of affordable housing for youth and for seniors who would otherwise be living on the street.

“We’re seeing homelessness grow all over the country, but for 25 years among homeless youth, LGBT people have always been over-represented,” Jean said. “Forty percent of the homeless youth in Los Angeles are LGBT, the same as in New York, the same as in Chicago, every major metropolitan area.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct multiple references to the Human Rights Campaign.

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