That removal—as Snopes and other fact-checkers noted—was part of a more general archiving of material from the Obama White House. But it was telling still, as the Washington Post observed, that the incoming presidential administration “did not choose to include anything about the LGBT community” on its new web presence.
That omission turned out to be a portentous one. The Trump administration spent much of 2017 rolling back LGBT rights, so it’s no wonder that government websites are now closely tracked for any alterations. Nearly two years into the Trump presidency, those changes—spread across multiple federal agency websites—tell a clear story.
“We’ve seen a general reduction in the prominence of LGBT content across Health, Labor, Education, Housing—even the White House itself,” Rachel Bergman, co-director of the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project, told The Daily Beast. “At best, this is definitely a signal that LGBT concerns have been significantly de-prioritized and, in the worst cases, they’re actively being undermined.”
The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan organization that has been monitoring changes made to federal websites around issues that it deems “politically sensitive” through the Web Integrity Project (WIP). So far, that project has tracked two major LGBT-related changes to federal websites.
In July, HHS changed its public-facing language around the Affordable Care Act’s ban on sex discrimination, specifically removing language about gender identity protections and transgender medical care.
Both of these changes, as the Sunlight Foundation noted in its reports, were not telegraphed beforehand, meaning that HHS had not “proactively communicated about or explained the changes” before they appeared online.
And when that happens with no explanation, it can leave the public—and, in this case, the LGBT community especially—befuddled.
Are the significant health disparities between non-heterosexual women and their straight counterparts no longer worthy of being highlighted? What happened to prompt that removal? (HHS claimed in a statement to Politico that the pages were “outdated” and therefore “removed,” with much of the “health content” then “integrated into the relevant health topics pages across the website”—but that didn’t line up with the Sunlight Foundation’s findings.)
“If informational content is removed,” Bergman explained, “people can become confused and be unsure as to whether the information that was previously up on the website was inaccurate or out of date—or if it’s just a choice by the agency to remove that information.”
In the case of a change like the one around the Affordable Care Act’s non-discrimination protections, it leaves the LGBT community—particularly transgender people—wondering whether another storm is brewing.
The Obama administration had publicly interpreted Section 1557 of the ACA to protect transgender people from discrimination in health care settings; if that language is changed, does that mean the Trump administration now formally and publicly disagrees?
“The public might become confused as to if the actual policy has changed if there’s a removal—or again if this is just something that the agency has decided to remove,” said Bergman.
In this case, the change does seem to suggest a stance—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a positive one—on the issue of transgender health care.
While much was removed from the website about the Affordable Care Act, a key sentence was added, noting that a district court injunction has blocked HHS from enforcing the gender identity protections—an injunction that the Trump administration has pointedly chosen not to appeal.
As the WIP noted, legal experts believe the changes made to the website went further than necessary to satisfy the conditions of the injunction.
It is perhaps not a grand revelation that the Trump administration—which has made several overtures to anti-LGBT evangelical leaders while repeatedly attacking LGBT rights, would demonstrate that position through its web presence.
“By looking at federal websites and actually monitoring what’s happening there, we can gather insight into changes in policies and priorities at the federal level, which is our goal,” said Bergman. “We’re attempting to hold the government accountable for what they’re putting up on their most public-facing resources. Websites are really how the public can engage with the federal government.”
There have, of course, been many other LGBT-related changes to federal websites that the Sunlight Foundation is currently working on corroborating.
Some of those changes appear to have come after—and directly because of—executive-level policy changes. For instance, when Department of Education documents on transgender students disappeared from the internet in March, as Politico first reported, the removals were explained as a product of the February rescinding of Obama-era guidance on restroom protections.
Others, like the reported order to remove LGBT-related information from the website for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, were not announced beforehand.
In March, advocacy groups sued HUD to try to figure out what had happened—after New York magazine reported that HUD leadership had “ordered the removal of online training materials meant, in part, to help homeless shelters make sure they were providing equal access to transgender people.”
Some changes are not removals but rather conspicuous failures to restore LGBT-related resources that were available under the Obama administration.
This May, as USA Today reported, two Democrats in the House drew attention to the fact that LGBT-related outreach pages on the Small Business Administration website had still not been reactivated, even though they had reportedly been told in 2017 that it would return “in the near future.” A week later, as the Advocate reported, the website reappeared.
But perhaps the most alarming LGBT-related alteration came earlier this month when, without notice, the State Department removed a website for transgender people to update the gender markers on their passports, replacing it with a website that used offensive language like “sex change,” and then—after outlets including The Daily Beast reported on it—revising some of that language.
The State Department explained that they wanted to “make our use of terms consistent and accurate,” but the move left many in the transgender community wondering whether the agency might be interested in reinstating the surgical requirement for gender marker changes—or, worse, making it impossible for transgender people to change their markers altogether?
So far, the State Department has repeatedly affirmed that the underlying policy remains unchanged but they have so far not assured transgender advocates that it will remain in place. Because websites have become a weird glimpse into the psyche of the Trump administration, that silence has made the transgender community anxious.
Federal website changes that are not announced beforehand, as Bergman noted, tend to have this effect, leaving potentially affected groups wondering, “Is this foreshadowing something to come?”
It is important for Sunlight to “differentiate,” Bergman says, between the changes that come about as the result of formally announced policy changes and those that are more surprising. As a nonpartisan group, she noted, “we can’t really speak to intention and motive,” but they can push for transparency and open government.
LGBT advocates, on the other hand, have no problem ascribing intention and motive to an administration that has, among other things, tried to ban transgender people from the military without any evidence supporting the notion that they would constitute a burden on readiness or effectiveness.
“The Trump administration appears to be systematically scrubbing the progress made for LGBTQ people from official websites,” Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said in January 2017, after the State Department relegated to the online archive former Secretary of State John Kerry’s apology for the mid-20thcentury firing of gay employees from the federal agency.
Over a year and a half later, as the changes and omissions pile up across several agencies, it is indeed becoming harder to see the scrubbing as anything but systematic.