Beto O’Rourke has become the latest presidential candidate to unveil his plan for LGBTQ equality should he be elected to the White House in 2020.
Timed to a Wednesday Pride run along the Hudson River in New York City, the former Texas Congressman outlined a wide-ranging plan to restore rollbacks of LGBTQ rights under the current administration. In a more than 30-point agenda shared with NewNowNext, O’Rourke pledges to reverse President Trump’s ban on open trans military service, renew federal data collection on LGBTQ Americans, and reinstate guidance on best practices for transgender students in public schools.
In a statement, O’Rourke claims his plan ensures “all Americans are treated equally no matter who they are or who they love.”
“LGBTQ Americans have made incredible progress over the past decade, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of activists and advocates—but too many LGBTQ people still lack protection under many states’ laws and the current administration is encouraging rather than stamping out discrimination,” the candidate says.
Signing Executive Orders to Secure LGBTQ Rights
In conversation with reporters at the Christopher Street pier in West Village, O’Rourke says that he chose June 12 to outline his plan because of the date’s significance to the LGBTQ community. Exactly three years ago, 49 people were killed in a deadly shooting at Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. This month also marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the six-day protests which helped kickstart the modern movement for LGBTQ rights.
“It’s important in the midst of an administration that has distinguished itself by its tolerance and its hatred and a rise in hate crimes each one of the last three years that we call to mind the heroic struggle that New York has represented for this entire country and take action,” he says.
O’Rourke’s agenda is divided into three parts. The first—and lengthiest—concerns the use of executive orders to further his LGBTQ agenda.
As president, O’Rourke claims he would vigorously issue orders to ensure all LGBTQ Americans are “protected and treated equally under the law.” He pledges to sign an executive order revoking the president’s partial ban on trans military service, as well as disbanding the “deploy and get out” policy. Unveiled in February 2018, those guidelines force the discharge of any troop who has been unable to deploy to combat zones within the past 12 months. Critics claimed that proposal effectively forced out HIV-positive servicemembers, who are considered undeployable by the Pentagon.
O’Rourke’s wish-list for executive orders also includes restoring Obama-era policies forbidding adoption and foster care agencies from receiving federal funding if they refuse to work with same-sex couples. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed a rule to allow placement centers to discriminate in the name of religion.
“In my home state, there are tens of thousands of kids in the foster care system,” he says. “You can legally be too gay to be able to adopt one of them.”
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, but it should not be used to discriminate,” the candidate claims.
In addition, O’Rourke says he would direct the federal government to treat sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal civil rights legislation like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the latter of which concerns equal access on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. He also vows to reissue a 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education advising teachers and faculty to treat trans youth in accordance with their gender identity in schools.
His agenda also includes plans to issue executive orders directing the Department of Justice to investigate hate crimes against transgender women of color following the deaths of three black trans women in Dallas in less than 12 months. O’Rourke also pledges to modernize laws allowing trans people to update their identity documents to match their lived gender identity and ensure transgender people are housed in accordance with their gender in U.S. prisons.
O’Rourke further promises to order the U.S. Census Bureau to ask questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity on a decennial survey of the population, as well as its decennial American Community Survey (ACS).
The candidate tells reporters that counting LGBTQ people is the only way to “protect” and “invest in every single American.”
“This president’s cynical approach to use the Census to try to obtain a Republican majority is estimated to cause a five percent undercount,” O’Rourke says, also referencing proposals to include a citizenship question on the decennial survey. “That means that representation in the House will not be accurate, that means that federal funds will not flow to communities that need them, that means that this country will not be firing on all cylinders.”
While O’Rourke’s other pledges touch on LGBTQ immigration and the global fight to end HIV/AIDS, some of his planned executive orders feel either vague or not fully fleshed out—like a first draft. For instance, one bullet point on his agenda is devoted to “reversing the administration’s attempt to expand religious exemptions in order to enable discrimination or harm others,” but that language doesn’t single out any particular facets of Trump’s platform (such as rollbacks of the Johnson Amendment, for instance) or state how the candidate would respond.
Other areas that merit clarity are O’Rourke’s plans on the FDA’s policies on gay and bisexual blood donors and conversion therapy. He calls for “research” into decreasing the 12-month deferral window for men who have sex with men (MSM), but countries like Italy and Spain have already begun using a risk-based assessment to determine eligibility, rather than sexual orientation. Neither country has seen an increase of HIV/AIDS in the blood supply as a result.
On the subject of attempts to “cure” the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ youth, O’Rourke (who was a cosponsor of the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act in Congress) says he will require “the FTC to tackle false advertising or other unfair business practices that promote the discredited practice of conversion therapy,” but stops short of pledging to pass an executive order curtailing the practice, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s order, signed in February 2016, bans insurance providers from covering the discredited practice.
Pushing Pro-LGBTQ Legislation Through Congress
While O’Rourke’s inaugural section included at least 20 specific pledges, his legislative agenda on LGBTQ rights is significantly thinner.
Like 2020 rival Joe Biden, O’Rourke claims his key legislative priority is the passage of the Equality Act in Congress. Recently passed by the U.S. House for the first time in its history, he says the landmark bill “would ensure all LGBTQ people may fully participate in public life without discrimination in employment, housing, and access to public spaces and services, such as retail stores and banking services.” If signed into law, the legislation would also include protections in areas like education, federal funding, credit, and the U.S. jury system.
But while O’Rourke vows to “work with Congress” to ensure the bill becomes the law of the land, that may be a tall order even in a new administration. Republicans currently control the Senate by a 53-47 majority. With Senate Democrats facing just as steep a challenge in 2020 as they did in the famously tough 2018 elections, an O’Rourke presidency would likely have to wait until 2022 to see that promise through.
Looking past his agenda on nondiscrimination, other action items include legislation mandating LGBTQ prison reform and a universal health care plan that recognizes the particular needs of queer and transgender people.
O’Rourke hopes to ban discrimination against transgender people in medical settings, similar to policies outlined in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. Those protections are in jeopardy under the current administration, which has proposed eliminating them. According to O’Rourke, transgender people should have equal access to “hormone and other gender-affirming treatments,” in addition to “HIV prevention and treatment” for all members of the LGBTQ community. Like the agenda that presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand shared with NewNowNext last week, that proposal does not specifically mention gender confirmation surgery.
O’Rourke also promises to fight “price gouging by drug companies so critical
and effective treatments like PrEP are accessible and affordable.”
His plan on prison reform both expands upon and reiterates many of the central components of his pro-LGBTQ executive orders. Above, O’Rourke discussed reinstating the Transgender Offender Manual, a set of guidelines from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) stating that trans inmates should be treated in accordance with their gender identity; those were gutted by the Trump administration last year. He elaborates on that by calling to reform the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to prevent sexual and physical abuse of transgender women in lockup facilities, though he doesn’t state how exactly the Bush-era legislation should be overhauled.
O’Rourke’s plan also calls for ending profiling of LGBTQ people by state and local law enforcement officials and holding police accountable for instances of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Details on those proposals, however, remain scant.
Lastly, the candidate expresses his support for the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, a federal bill that would ensure same-sex families are treated equally when seeking to adopt or foster a child, even in faith-based care centers. That legislation was recently reintroduced to Congress by House Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Angie Craig (D-Minn.).
Fighting for LGBTQ Equality Around the Globe
O’Rourke wraps up his LGBTQ agenda with a brief discussion of his plan for furthering queer and trans equality through U.S. foreign policy. His four-point platform includes reforming the asylum process for LGBTQ refugees and pushing the United Nations to adopt explicit nondiscrimination language inclusive of both gender identity and sexual orientation.
The language on LGBTQ asylum seekers here is very modest, as it rehashes statements made earlier in his agenda when outlining O’Rourke’s bucket list of pro-LGBTQ executive orders. In that section, he pledges to ensure that LGBTQ refugees “have access to the asylum process,” as well doing what is necessary “to prevent and end sexual violence impacting LGBTQ immigrants in detention.” Calling back to that proposal, the candidate vows to “improve the process for LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers.”
O’Rourke tells reporters that his plan “ensures that LGBTQ refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants are treated with respect and dignity that they’re owed.”
“Their detention conditions right now have led to tragic outcomes including the deaths of two detainees,” he says. “Making sure our administration recognizes the vulnerable status of those who are fleeing persecution, violence, brutality, and death in their home countries where they do not enjoy those protections is important in saving their lives.”
The former Congressman also hopes to create within the State Department a Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTQ People, an office devoted to furthering LGBTQ rights around the globe. He plans to increase investment in the Global Equality Fund, a program that offers “assistance to groups that support the human rights of LGBTQ persons.”
But while O’Rourke discusses rebuilding the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), which was dismissed shortly after Trump took office, the presidential hopeful does not discuss restoring funding for HIV/AIDS under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a federal program established by President George W. Bush to stop the virus’ spread in Africa. Last year, the administration has announced cuts of $1.35 billion to that program, which critics claim would result in thousands of deaths every year.
While O’Rourke’s agenda is more extensive than the one proposed by Elizabeth Warren, who offered a brief preview of her plan for LGBTQ rights to NewNowNext last month, his platform appears to be a work in progress. As mentioned before, many of the candidate’s proposals lack clear policy detail or specifics on how they would be implemented. His ideas are ambitious, and he will no doubt have the chance to fill in the details in the coming weeks and months.
Other components of his policy agenda that have yet to be discussed include a plan for decriminalizing sex work, and O’Rourke is not alone in this. The majority of 2020 candidates have yet to disclose their stances on whether prostitution should be legalized across the United States. LGBTQ people are disproportionately likely to engage in sex work, including survival sex work.
O’Rourke also does not address proposed policies from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) allowing homeless shelters to turn away clients based on gender identity. His agenda also does not include platforms on preventing anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools, the recognition of a third gender on federal identity documents like U.S. passports, or same-sex couples whose children have been denied citizenship because they were born abroad, or the recognition of a third gender on federal identity documents like U.S. passports.
While he did not fully outline a plan to roll out a third gender marker to reporters, O’Rourke promises to “ease the path to change somebody’s name or gender on legal documents.”
You can read O’Rourke’s agenda in its entirety on his campaign website.