During an interview following the shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 injured, Donald Trump made an unexpected claim about his relationship to the LGBT community. Using the segment as an opportunity to criticize Hillary Clinton’s plan to allow an increased number of Syrian refugees into the country, the then-presumptive Republican nominee said, “I’m far better for the gay community than she is.”
The claim was unusual for two reasons. First, it represented a clear acknowledgement of the anti-gay motivation behind the attack, which most other Republicans at the time were choosing to ignore even as they extended their prayers and regret. But more importantly, it marked one of the few instances—if not the first—in which a Republican presidential candidate had used the phrase “gay community” or spoken positively about LGBT people as a group. Ever.
Trump’s comments during the interview, as well as his historic promise—delivered on the final night of the Republican National Convention—to “do everything in [his] power to protect LGBT citizens” complicate the perception of a man whom many already see as a departure from traditional Republican politicians. Rather than championing his party’s vehement rejection of gay marriage and its endorsement of conversion therapy as a “treatment” for homosexuality, Trump has largely distanced himself from those issues. What is more, he has reached out to the gay community more directly than any past Republican presidential nominee.
Still, despite Trump’s comments both at the RNC and in various interviews throughout his campaign, LGBT people in this election leaned dramatically toward Hillary Clinton, and with good reason. Not only had she been endorsed by multiple gay rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, but she has gone much further than Trump in reaching out to the LGBT community, both by coming out in full support of marriage equality and putting forth a robust LGBT rights agenda that sought to fight AIDS, protect transgender rights, end conversation therapy for minors and “protect people from discrimination… in every aspect of public life.”
Yet Clinton was not always an unequivocal supporter of gay rights; in fact, her views seem to have paralleled public opinion, becoming more supportive of gay marriage as the country as a whole did too. This “evolution” has raised skepticism in liberals and conservatives alike, the former accusing her of riding the wave of public opinion for her own gain and the latter of having supported gay marriage all along and coming out only when it was politically expedient. Furthermore, during her time as first lady and her subsequent run for Senate, she continually frustrated LGBT activists by supporting federal anti-gay legislation and speaking about her refusal to support gay marriage on religious grounds.
So despite Clinton’s endorsements and her recent embrace of LGBT equality, there is still some merit in examining Trump’s claim regarding LGBT people, if not as an effort to seriously determine which candidate would have been more gay friendly—after all, Trump’s party rolled out the most staunchly anti-LGBT platform in history while Clinton’s put forth the most progressive—then at least as an effort to contextualize Trump’s remarks and consider their significance in gay political discourse rather than choose to disregard them completely.
Clinton and the Democratic Party
Throughout most of her career, Hillary Clinton has been a somewhat ambivalent ally of the gay community. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton made history by becoming the first presidential candidate to actively seek the support of the gay and lesbian community. Speaking to a crowd at an LGBT fundraiser in Hollywood, he famously said, “I have a vision of America, and you are a part of it.” He talked, among other things, about the importance of ending discrimination against gays and lesbians and promised to lift the ban on gays in the military. The next few years saw arguable failures on both counts. Unable to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, Bill Clinton compromised, leading to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve as long as they concealed their sexual orientations from others. Still more distressing for LGBT activists was Bill Clinton’s support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
While Hillary Clinton cannot be held personally accountable for her husband’s shortcomings during his time as president—indeed, she spoke out against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy during her 2000 campaign for Senate—her own initial support of DOMA and her continual rejection of same-sex marriage reveal a candidate whose positions on LGBT issues have not always been easy to reconcile or even articulate: In the same year that she defended her support of DOMA and declared that marriage had “always been between a man and a woman,” she made history by walking in New York City’s gay pride parade and, like many Democrats who did not support gay marriage at the time, spoke instead in favor of civil unions with legally equivalent benefits for committed gay couples.
It would be unfair and perhaps disingenuous to heap judgment on Clinton for not supporting gay marriage from the outset of her 35-year-long career. Most major Democratic politicians, including Joe Biden, Martin O’Malley, Tim Kaine and Barack Obama, began publicly supporting same-sex marriage only recently, and Hillary Clinton has been no different. Still, many LGBT people felt blindsided by the Clintons’ willingness to make hard choices at their expense, and rightfully so. It took years for the Clintons to finally denounce DOMA as discriminatory and for the law to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, Hillary Clinton’s history on same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues could fill dozens of pages, but there is no doubt that even during her most problematic periods she kept LGBT rights in mind, speaking out against a proposed federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage altogether, helping to increase access to HIV/AIDS drugs to 9 million people, promoting LGBT rights internationally as secretary of state and delivering a bold statement at the United Nations proclaiming that “gay rights are human rights.”
The recent effort, therefore, to question the authenticity of Clinton’s shift on same-sex marriage seemed misguided and irrelevant. For one, it was not only conceivable but also likely that Clinton, a 68-year-old grandmother with a Methodist upbringing, could have found it difficult to reconcile the idea of same-sex marriage with her faith. But the fact is that whether or not Clinton had truly come around to supporting gay marriage privately—and there was no real reason to believe she had not—she had already done so publicly, and with the Democratic Party’s overwhelming support of LGBT rights behind her, she would have stood to be the most LGBT-friendly president in American history.
Trump and the Republican Party
Because Trump had never held public office before this election, his positions on LGBT issues cannot yet be judged in relation to votes for or against particular pieces of legislation, but rather through his own personal relationships with LGBT people and his interviews over the years on various media outlets. As with Clinton, the facts resist an easy narrative.
During the last few decades, Donald Trump’s stance on gay marriage and LGBT rights has been almost identical to Clinton’s, with their views diverging only relatively recently. While Trump has never come out in support of gay marriage—in fact, he has continually expressed his belief that marriage should take place only between people of different sexes—he claimed in a 2000 interview with Advocate to support the idea of “a very strong domestic-partnership law” for committed same-sex couples. Furthermore, he recently surprised conservatives and LGBT advocates alike when he initially opposed the law in North Carolina prohibiting transgender people from using the public restrooms that correspond to their gender. But time has seen Donald Trump reverse his position on both issues. During an interview on The 700 Club in 2011, Trump claimed not to have “totally formed [his] opinion” on civil unions although, to his credit, he clarified that his position should not be construed as condoning discrimination, much like Bill Clinton had done nearly two decades earlier after signing DOMA. Trump also walked back his statement on the North Carolina bathroom law, saying he supported the rights of cities and municipalities to decide for themselves.
Although these are only two examples of Donald Trump’s mixed messages on LGBT issues, they complicate Trump’s claim about being an ally to the community. While Clinton’s shift LGBT issues adheres to a more or less consistent progression, Trump’s does not. He has flip-flopped repeatedly on same-sex marriage and civil unions, and after initially declaring that the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on the issue was final, he later promised to appoint justices who would reverse marriage equality.
What is more, although he has historically been inclusive of gays in his personal life—fostering friendships with prominent figures in the gay community, opening up his Palm Beach resort to gay couples when doing so was neither expected nor accepted and appointing openly gay workers at high levels in his companies—Trump’s courting of conservative leaders and advisors throughout his presidential campaign, as well as his selection of anti-LGBT politician Mike Pence as his running mate, has earned him the mistrust of many in the LGBT community, so much so that for only the second time in 40 years, the Log Cabins Republicans, the largest group of LGBT Republicans in the country, withheld their endorsement.
So questioning whether Trump would have been better than Clinton for gays is out of the question; Clinton came further than he in extending a hand to the LGBT community, and whatever hers or Trump’s personal views on the matter, Clinton had the support of her party on LGBT rights while the Republicans overwhelmingly oppose LGBT rights, leaving Trump little room to change his position.
However, there is no question that this year’s Republican National Convention broke the mold in its inclusion—if not in practice, then at least in rhetoric—of LGBT people. From PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel declaring he was “proud to be gay, and… proud to be a Republican” to Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich speaking about freedom and the need to protect the LGBT community, respectively, the convention surprised many viewers who had been used to seeing the struggles and hopes of the LGBT community painted in a negative light at past Republican conventions.
Perhaps most unexpected was Trump’s own promise to keep LGBTQ citizens safe from “a hateful foreign ideology” if elected president, which received equally surprising support from the audience. Trump immediately followed his promise by saying, “As a Republican, it’s nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
Yet while the RNC represented a watershed moment for the Republican Party, there is still reason to examine more closely the claims made by Trump and other members of the Republican Party, to contextualize them in current events and acknowledge not only how far the Republican Party has come, but how far it still needs to go.
The Orlando Massacre
On June 12, 2016 a man named Omar Mateen walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando. He pushed through the crowd of dancing bodies until he had reached the back, where he began to slaughter as many people as he could. Armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53, making his attack the deadliest mass shooting perpetrated by a single person in the United States.
Governments and people the world over responded to the attack by expressing solidarity with the victims, with Orlando and with the LGBT community in general. Vigils were held around the world; monuments lit up in rainbow lights; and everyone from celebrities to politicians to the Pope himself expressed their horror and regret.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump also responded to the attack. Taking to Twitter, both candidates called the shooting “horrific” and extended their thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Donald Trump also tweeted, thoughtlessly and tactlessly, that he “appreciated the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” remarks which earned widespread disapproval. Later at the RNC, Trump would make his historic speech, saying, “Only weeks ago… 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by terrorists” and promising to “do everything in [his] power to protect LGBT citizens from… a hateful foreign ideology.”
There are two glaring problems with Trump’s statements.
First, his choice of words betrays not only a superficial understanding of who the Orlando victims were, but also the limits to which he could ever be a true friend to the gay community. The Orlando shooting occurred during Pulse’s Latin Night. As such, many of the victims were Latino, born here from immigrant parents or immigrants themselves, and part of a community with which Trump has had a well-documented and strained relationship over the course of his presidential campaign; they were not all, as Trump asserted, “citizens” or even “Americans.” Furthermore, Trump’s claim that Clinton cannot be a friend to the gay community because she would allow an increased number of Syrian refugees into the U.S. carries this same flaw; it ignores the fact that “LGBT” is not an isolated designation that exists in a vacuum, separate from other labels like “immigrant,” “Mexican,” “woman,” “African-American,” or even “Muslim.” LGBT people are all of these and more, and Trump must remember that.
More troubling, though, is Trump’s reductionist mention of a “hateful foreign ideology,” which he, along with Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich, has used to attack Hillary Clinton’s proposed refugee plan, and which brazenly ignores the history of repression, persecution and discrimination that LGBT people across this country have faced as a result of the hateful ideologies closer to home.
A History of Discrimination
On October 6, 1998 two men abducted Matthew Shepard, took him to a remote area of Laramie, Wyoming, and tied him to a fence. There they cracked his cranium with a gun and beat him mercilessly. He was found 18 hours later, still tied to the fence, face covered in blood except where his tears had washed it partially clean.
The murder of Matthew Shepard, whom the criminals had targeted because of his sexual orientation, is one of the most well-known anti-gay crimes in history. It is a painful reminder that LGBT people are no strangers to the dangers of hateful ideologies. The murder inspired the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate-crime law to include gender, sexual orientation and disability.
For decades, gays have been insulted, slandered, demeaned, rejected, harassed, persecuted, humiliated, beaten, tortured and killed for being gay. Why the sudden focus on keeping LGBT people safe from hateful foreign ideologies when hateful domestic ideologies have been alive and well in this country for years? Trump has criticized Clinton for seeking to take in more Syrian refugees, and Cruz has mocked “all the Democrats who are loud champions of the gay and lesbian community whenever there is a culture battle waging” but who have not spoken out “against an ideology that calls for the murder of gays and lesbians.” Ted Cruz, who during his presidential campaign gave a speech at a religious conference organized by anti-gay pastor Kevin Swanson and who happily came onstage after the pastor called for the execution of unrepentant gays, seems not to have noticed the hateful ideology toward gays that has surrounded him throughout his career.
Likewise, many of the religious leaders Trump has reached out to during his campaign espouse hateful ideologies toward gays. Why aren’t Trump and other Republicans trying to protect LGBT people from them? If ensuring the safety of the LGBT community is truly what matters to Trump, Cruz and Gingrich—if their real motive is to find solidarity with gays and not, as a more cynical audience might guess, to limit the U.S-bound immigration of non-white peoples of another religion in order to maintain a white Christian cultural majority in the country—then why not call those ideologies out?
When Trump and Cruz say that LGBT lives are on the line, it couldn’t be truer. Lives are on the line, and they have been for years, with or without Muslims. If Republicans want their rhetorical outreach to the LGBT community to ring true, if they want it to seem genuine, they should mention not only the possible future attacks on LGBT people by terrorists; they should bring awareness also to the fact that gays and lesbians are 2 to 6 many times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexuals; that 30% of gay and lesbian youth attempt to end their lives by age 15; they should mention that LGBT youth represent 40% of the homeless youth in this country despite making up only 7% of the general youth population; they should bring attention to the fact that 25% of gays and lesbians experience hate crimes in their lifetimes; that 2015 had the highest-ever murder rate for trans women of color. Where is Trump, Cruz and Gingrich’s acknowledgement that believing in the rights of LGBT people to feel safe in their own country and believing in conversion therapy are incompatible visions?
Hell, where are their “It Gets Better” videos?
This year’s Republican National Convention was historic for LGBT people, but the party has a long way to go before its members can pull rank on Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, hateful foreign ideologies notwithstanding.
As unprecedented and heartening as the LGBT outreach at the RNC was, mostly because gays have historically been condemned or at best ignored at that venue, it is safe to say that Trump would not be better for the gay community than Clinton. His courting of anti-LGBT activists and politicians, his backtracking on civil unions and other LGBT issues, and his party’s fierce anti-gay politics send a clear message to LGBT people: Upholding your rights is not our concern.
But the Republican Party cannot continue to alienate gays for very long. LGBT people may themselves represent only a small percentage of the electorate, but the recent dramatic shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage and the fact that young voters overwhelmingly support LGBT rights means that opposing these rights is a losing battle. The Republican Party stands at a crossroads: It can either take the small progress this election has seen in the rhetoric regarding gay people and build on it, or it can continue rejecting gays and putting forth policies that seek to damage the LGBT community.
One thing is certain, however: Lasting progress on LGBT rights and equality cannot happen without the support of both parties. Democrats alone cannot push through lasting legislation on gay issues, and we need to live in a country where everyone, regardless of political party, agrees that the LGBT community deserves equal rights, that the hopes and aspirations of LGBT people to live, work, and access the goods and services of a free market society should be protected under the law.
Finally, it can be easy and even tempting to disregard Donald Trump’s message to the gay community as disingenuous and leave it at that. The context of his remarks and the disconnect between what he does and what he says certainly merits some healthy skepticism. But we should resist the urge to roll our eyes and move on. If we want Republicans’ positions on LGBT rights to change, we must engage with their rhetoric and acknowledge their progress wherever we see it—but of course, without forgetting to hold them accountable for what they say.