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2016-2017 Issue II Election 2016 National

Coming out as Republican: LGBTQ voices in the GOP

“I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I’m proud to be an American,” said PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel at the Republican National Convention. The prominent gay Republican’s speech was criticized for promoting what many see as a contradictory relationship between the LGBTQ community and the Republican party. But LGBTQ acceptance within the GOP is not new. Several groups have advocated for this position for decades, since LGBTQ issues entered mainstream consciousness in the 1980s.

This year is no different, as the presidential race has amplified new, louder voices from within the LGBTQ conservative movement. Greater media attention and controversial statements have brought this movement to the forefront of the election cycle. And while not all LGBTQ Republicans agree, many have voiced their support for Donald Trump. Although this voice has been criticized, it persists..

This particular set of Republicans have not always been under the national spotlight. The first was Former Representative Steve Gunderson (R-WI), who served four years in the Wisconsin State Assembly and 14 years in the House as a closeted homosexual. Gunderson came out in 1994, after which he was elected to another term as the first openly gay Republican representative.

“I came out because it was important to be reelected as an openly gay person,” Gunderson said in an interview with The Politic, “[Within the Republican party] the LGBT community certainly had no voice back in the ‘80s or ‘90s.”

Two years later in 1996, Republican Representative Bob Barr of Georgia introduced the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the House floor. The law prohibited same-sex couples from receiving federal recognition and withheld the benefits of marriage from them.

“I was the only Republican member of the House or Senate to vote against DOMA,” Gunderson said proudly. “I recognized that I had to be honest to my own integrity.”

But DOMA passed, and its provisions remained as law for 17 years until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2013. Although he lost the battle against DOMA, Gunderson’s vote inspired the movement to reach new heights.

Interest groups formed to represent the growing community of LGBTQ conservatives. The Log Cabin Republicans (LCR) has long fought anti-LGBTQ legislation like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and advocated for LGBTQ inclusion within the GOP. And although the Supreme Court upheld the right to same-sex marriage under Obergefell v. Hodges, many Republican politicians have threatened to overturn the decision.

But Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, seems unfazed.

“I don’t lose any sleep at night worrying about marriage equality,” Angelo said in an interview with The Politic. “It is here, and it is here to stay. In many respects, the marriage and nondiscrimination battle has been won for all but the cleanup.”

Joseph Fischel, an assistant professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale, notes that Republican support for the LGBTQ community may stem not from more supporters, but rather from a new willingness to speak publicly.

“It is now bad table manners to be homophobic. This makes the GOP easier to stomach,” explained Fischel to The Politic. “If the Republican party represented your other interests, it’s now more acceptable to support them.”

While society might accept LGBTQ conservatives, they still have a hard time coming out. Gunderson said that in some places, coming out as gay is “risky at best.”

Jim Hoft, founder of conservative blog The Gateway Pundit, held doubts about coming out to the 600,000 readers of his blog.

“There was some fear involved when you’re a conservative and you’re gay,” Hoft explained to The Politic. “I didn’t know how it would affect my standing in the community.”

But following the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Hoft felt compelled to come out.

The response from the Democratic leaders when they blamed guns, that really upset me,” he said. After coming out, Hoft was surprised to see an overwhelming number of positive responses. Dozens of conservatives sent him supportive messages, he said. Even those who staunchly opposed LGBTQ rights said they would continue to read his blog.

Lucian Wintrich, a gay artist and graphic designer, did not receive the same response when he came out – as a Republican.

Wintrich took photos of young male models wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and posted them on Twitter. His “Twinks4Trump” went viral on the Internet and thrust him into the national spotlight. He received messages calling him “a traitor to the LGBTQ community.” Some claimed he had set the community back. Others warned him not to “show [his] face anywhere.”

In a phone interview with The Politic, Wintrich said people would confront him in person to argue politics. Someone even bit him. He stressed that his critics were largely LGBTQ Democrats.

In today’s hyper-partisan political climate, Democrats often appeal to the LGBTQ community by reminding voters of their party’s history of support for LGBTQ rights. Democrats attract these voters with a platform of equality and nondiscrimination. The idea of “LGBTQ Republicans” contradicts the narrative that Democrats are the party of progressivism. But some LGBTQ Americans hesitate to join the Democratic party. Doing so, they argue, would compromise their political beliefs.

“The game the Democrats have played with the LGBTQ community for years now,”  explained Angelo, “is tricking the greater LGBTQ community into believing the only issues that should matter to them are marriage equality and overly-broad nondiscrimination.” Angelo explained that LGBTQ voters don’t only care about advancing their own rights. They want a government that will reform the tax code, protect national security, and preserve the Second Amendment.

“I refuse to be put in a two-issue silo by Democrats simply because I’m a gay man,” Angelo said.

His sentiment resonates with many LGBTQ Republicans. Wintrich is also frustrated with the rhetoric of the Democrats. He said that despite public opinion, the GOP is an accepting party.

“I think it’s as inclusive as the left, but they show their inclusivity in different ways,” he said. The Democrats, he thinks, exploit their advantage.

The Democrats play a game of identity politics that the GOP doesn’t play. The left will put a trans person front and center on screen and have them talk about how liberals are the only accepting party,” said Wintrich.

In this tumultuous election, LGBTQ Republicans have often found themselves at odds with each other. Jimmy LaSalvia, the co-founder of GOProud, a PAC representing conservative LGBTQ Americans, has dissolved GOProud and now supports Hillary Clinton.

“It’s our diversity that makes America great in the first place,” LaSalvia told The Politic. “A vision of America that doesn’t recognize that is just not acceptable to me.”

LaSalvia sees some parallels between the LGBTQ community and the Muslim-American community.

“It hits home for us when we see some groups being targeted politically simply because of who they are,” said LaSalvia about Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. “Our whole lives have been spent being used as political pawns.”

Gunderson disagrees. While he recognizes that not everything sits well within the GOP, he also believes Donald Trump is “quite open in support of the LGBTQ community.” The Democratic party should be respected for its “voice for progress” in civil rights, he says, but Republicans “need to continue a vigilance.”

Pre-election polls have shown that most LGBTQ conservatives support Donald Trump.

“He’s from New York, he’s hired far more gay people than Hillary Clinton,” explained Wintrich, a resident of New York City. “We have a presidential candidate who is quite honestly the most pro-gay candidate to run on the Republican platform.” Wintrich dismissed the criticism Donald Trump receives for his stance on same-sex marriage.

“I really don’t care if Donald Trump believes in traditional marriage,” he said. “He’s a straight guy; that’s why he got traditionally married.”

Many conservatives think Trump has an excellent record with the gay community, and that the LGBTQ community would be well-represented and protected under his policies.

Jim Hoft agreed that Donald Trump has been “widely accepting of gays over the years,” even if his running mate Mike Pence hasn’t. Hoft said he was impressed with Donald Trump’s outreach to the LGBTQ community, especially after the Pulse massacre. Hoft said the Democrats’ response, on the other hand, upset him.

“There were a bunch of gays that were dead from radical Islam. The Democrats are not taking the threat seriously,” said Hoft.

Iran’s threat to LGBTQ rights alarms many conservatives in the United States. The international community has condemned the country’s hard-right religious clerics for their persecution of suspected homosexuals. Many LGBTQ Republicans view the nuclear deal with Iran as an implicit endorsement of the country’s anti-LGBTQ policies. They reject the notion that the United States should strike any deal with a nation that does not respect gay rights.   

Back home, the 2016 presidential race “is a very weird and probably the most theatrical election,” said Wintrich, “and there’s unfortunately a lot at stake.”

Where do LGBTQ Republicans fit into the madness? They have received flak from the gay community for not supporting the Democratic party. LGBTQ Democrats have said the Republican National Committee’s platform, which rejects the Supreme Court’s “redefinition of marriage” and “urges its reversal,” bodes disaster for the LGBTQ community.

But the party platform is not a binding document. When Gunderson served in the House of Representatives, he did not accept the GOP platform. Instead, Gunderson adhered to some Republican beliefs and distanced himself from others.

“The platform assigns a reputation to you that is not sought and is not an accurate reputation of who you are,” Gunderson said.

LGBTQ conservatives often face scalding rhetoric from within their own party. Many Republicans stick to the party platform’s positions on LGBTQ rights and reject the premise of same-sex marriage. Wintrich claims to fights this hate with a message of inclusion.

“A lot of people recognize the white space for somewhat articulate gay voices in the party and culture,” he said.

Some have sidestepped the issue of the party platform, arguing instead that the government does not have the power to resolve cultural divides.

“Any issues facing the LGBTQ community are cultural issues. Not every barrier facing our community is met with a government solution,” said LaSalvia. “As culturally modern people, we need to be inclusive of everybody.”

The struggle for conservative LGBTQ people to be heard, accepted, and welcomed by American society is difficult but not futile.

“When I got involved in Log Cabin Republicans, I quickly found myself in a room with people who felt like family,”  said Angelo. “Other LGBT Republicans who felt the same way about national defense, tax reform, and yes, marriage equality.”

The 2016 election has come to an end, but this group of Americans will not. Political posturing aside, LGBTQ Republicans only ask for acceptance of who they are.

“I’m just normal,” said LaSalvia, matter-of-fact and proud.

This piece was written prior to the 2016 presidential election.