How Unions Can Protect LGBTQ Rights in the Age of Trump

Volume 117, No. 6June, 2017

Donna Cartright


After a decade of unprecedented progress, LGBTQ activists find themselves facing challenges that few of us could have foreseen even a year ago. While the new Trump administration has not made its attitude toward LGBTQ people completely clear, it represents social forces that are mostly hostile to LGBTQ rights.

And the pushback against LGBTQ rights did not start with the presidential campaign. Dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures last year, and although most failed, North Carolina’s HB2 was enacted and remains on the books. It bars municipalities from enacting anti-discrimination and worker protection ordinances and, most notoriously, prohibits transgender people from using restroom facilities in public buildings consistent with their gender identity. (Even though HB2 was partially repealed in March, activist groups are still fighting the parts of the law that remain in place.)

Dozens more such bills have been introduced this year, including SB6 in Texas, which is similar to the North Carolina law in its impact on trans people, but substantially more punitive.

While the North Carolina law and the Texas bill cover only restrooms in public buildings, their impact could be more substantial than it might first appear.

For example, think of what the North Carolina law, or another like it, would mean to:

  • A trans lawyer who could not use restrooms in the court buildings
  • A trans journalist who couldn’t use the restrooms in a public building while covering a news briefing or a legislative session
  • A trans teacher who couldn’t use the restrooms in the public school or college where he or she works

Even more daunting is the possibility that the major role the federal government has played in advancing LGBTQ rights will be reversed. The nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court does not bode well for LGBTQ people.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, Justice Gorsuch’s approach to federal regulatory powers would make it much more difficult for administrative agencies “to implement key civil rights, labor and consumer laws.” And Justice Gorsuch’s nomination seems almost certain to be the first of many such anti-LGBTQ appointments to federal courts.

So what can we do? As the struggle in North Carolina showed last year, the best defense has been public pressure. A widespread boycott put anti-LGBTQ politicians in that state and elsewhere on the defensive, and this year’s bill in Texas is facing substantial opposition, with passage by no means assured.

Since his election, Donald Trump’s actions have provoked an intense progressive reaction, with a public mobilization that has rarely been matched. Hopefully, this resistance will continue, and roll back the anti-LGBTQ offensive in the states, Congress and the courts.

Since there is still no statutory federal anti-discrimination protection for LGBTQ workers, a union contract is often our best defense. Unions can play a significant role in protecting marginalized minorities at times when government is indifferent or hostile.

In fact, the News Guild of New York (CWA Local 31003) has been a pioneer in workplace rights for LGBTQ people. As a union activist at the New York Times, I worked with gay and lesbian colleagues in the early 1990s to win domestic partner benefits and add sexual orientation to the contract’s anti-discrimination clause. A decade later, we added gender identity and expression.

Outside the workplace, I helped queer union activists in Pride at Work to win passage of New York City’s ordinance barring discrimination against trans people in 2002.

There are other factors that can strengthen resistance to the current wave of right-wing scapegoating of LGBTQ people. Public acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and – increasingly – transgender people has increased dramatically since the wave of anti-marriage-equality amendments to state constitutions 10 years ago.

I can attest to the change in public consciousness regarding transgender people. When I came out as transgender almost 20 years ago, I encountered few problems at my job at the New York Times. But for several years thereafter, I faced frequent harassment on the street, and some violence, even in the relatively liberal environment of New York City and its suburbs. Over the years, the threat of public humiliation and attack has waned quite a bit, although trans people, and particularly trans women of color, still face frequent violence.

The shift in public attitudes about LGBTQ people seems unlikely to fade or go away. It is much harder to tolerate mistreatment of people who are different if inclusion is the norm of public discourse. I think this has something to do with the reason that bigots get so upset about “political correctness.”  It’s harder to get away with viciousness toward marginalized people if other people object.

Donna Cartwright is an LGBTQ activist and a labor activist. She was a co-president of Pride at Work, the constituency group of the AFL-CIO that organizes mutual support between the labor movement and the LGBTQ community to further social and economic justice. This essay also appeared at and and was reprinted with permission.