With five letters, Donald Trump brushed off decades of Republican reluctance to voice full-throated support for gay rights — at least for a night.
Trump’s call in his speech to the Republican National Convention for protecting the “LGBTQ community” was a watershed moment for the Republican Party — the first time the issue has been elevated in a GOP nomination address. Four years ago, Mitt Romney never uttered the word “gay,” much less the full acronym — standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning.
But Trump, as if to drive the point home, said it not once, but twice.
“I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” Trump said, adding for emphasis: “Believe me.”
If Republican delegates gathered in Cleveland to nominate Trump were caught off-guard, they didn’t show it. They cheered him — loudly.
Even the candidate seemed surprised.
“I have to say, as a Republican it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said,” Trump ad-libbed. “Thank you.”
The unequivocal appeal for a more inclusive tone is likely to give Trump’s fellow Republicans permission to embrace an issue resonating deeply with a younger generation of voters from all sides of the political spectrum. It also puts Trump squarely at odds with the party platform adopted just three days earlier at his own nominating convention.
In fact, the GOP platform moves farther away from gay rights than past years, with a new admonition of gay parenting that says kids raised by a mother and father tend to be “physically and emotionally healthier.” Preserved in the platform are opposition to gay marriage and to bathroom choice for transgender people.
To be sure, Trump is far from the candidate that gay rights advocates would have selected were the choice up to them. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who supports same-sex marriage, Trump has said he’d nominate Supreme Court justices who might overturn the ruling legalizing it nationwide. He once called that ruling “shocking” and has said states should get to decide — a position in line with mainstream Republican orthodoxy.
Yet the New York billionaire has often spoken effusively about his friendships with gay people while avoiding anti-gay rhetoric that many other GOP candidates have embraced. After a gunman claiming Islamic State allegiance killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Trump said he’d be better than Clinton because he wouldn’t allow in Muslim immigrants who want to “murder gays.”
In another Republican first, an openly gay speaker acknowledged his sexuality Thursday from the podium — and put fellow Republicans on the spot by saying he disagreed with parts of the platform. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, said only Trump was being honest about how “fake culture wars” distract from America’s economic decline.
“I am proud to be gay,” Thiel declared. “I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American.”
He was greeted with wild cheers and extended applause as some delegations jumped to their feet — another striking moment for a Republican gathering.
Throughout this week’s convention, pro-gay Republicans hailing Trump as the most supportive nominee in the party’s history have had their elation tempered by the stark realization that their party is still pushing a very different message. Cara Pavalock, a Connecticut state lawmaker attending the convention, said that’s a reflection of how much work the party needs to do on the issue.
“I joined the party not for what it is but for what I know it will be in the future,” said Pavalock, a Trump supporter.
And the closing-night moments aside, Trump’s nominating convention featured awkward silences on the rare occasions when gay rights came up. The final evening featured speeches by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., two vehement gay rights opponents.
For those hoping Trump’s nomination will improve the party’s reputation among gay rights proponents, there’s another challenge: Mainstream gay rights groups have denounced Trump, arguing that tolerance for one minority group doesn’t excuse prejudice toward others — like Hispanics and Muslims — or unflattering comments about women.
“His hatred toward anybody is a huge concern,” said Jay Brown of the Human Rights Campaign. “When he attacks women, he attacks us. When he attacks Muslims, he’s attacking us.”
Gay Republicans say that’s an attempt by left-leaning groups to blur the issues to help Democrats win elections and raise money.
“They are hell-bent on keeping this a political issue,” said Republican strategist Richard Grenell.
Four years ago Grenell, who is gay, was hired by 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney to be his foreign policy spokesman, but resigned under pressure from social conservatives who questioned Romney’s conservatism. This week, he attended a “Big Tent Brunch” on the convention’s sidelines hosted by a pro-LGBT nonprofit.
At the brunch — held in a literal big tent at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, pro-LGBT Republicans sipped mimosas and mingled with transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner while a man carried a rainbow version of the Gadsden flag — a tea party symbol. Added was the phrase “Shoot Back,” employed by gun rights advocates after the Orlando shooting to suggest the victims should have been armed.