CLEVELAND — Pro-gay Republicans have held Donald Trump up as the most supportive nominee in GOP history, but at this week’s Republican National Convention, their excitement is clashing with the stark realization that their party is still pushing a very different message.
While Republicans seek to broaden their appeal ahead of November’s election, the party adopted a platform that moves farther away from gay rights with a new admonition of gay parenting, adding language that says kids raised by a mother and father tend to be “physically and emotionally healthier.” On the convention’s first day, the platform maintained its opposition to gay marriage and to bathroom choice for transgender people.
Trump declares himself a “friend of the gay community,” but his nominating convention has featured awkward silences on the rare occasions when gay rights have come up. Connecticut State Rep. Cara Pavalock 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.
An explicit call for better GOP treatment of gays was to come Thursday from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter who has faced blowback in Silicon Valley for giving the speech. Gay Republicans were eager to see what reception delegates would give Thiel, who planned to say he’s proud to be gay and disagrees with the party’s platform.
For those hoping Trump’s nomination will help repair the perception that Republicans are hostile to equality, there’s another challenge: Mainstream gay rights groups are denouncing the New York billionaire, arguing that tolerance for one minority group doesn’t excuse prejudice toward others — like Hispanics and Muslims.
Trump, who has said he’d nominate Supreme Court justices who might overturn gay marriage, has nonetheless 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 Hillary Clinton because he wouldn’t allow in Muslim immigrants who want to “murder gays.”
At the same time, Trump has rattled many voters with unflattering comments about women, while insisting Mexico sends rapists and criminals into the U.S.
“His hatred toward anybody is a huge concern,” said Jay Brown of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights group. “When he attacks women, he attacks us. When he attacks Muslims, he’s attacking us.”
Gay Republicans who attended one event in a downtown ballroom Tuesday — titled “Wake Up! (the most fab party at the RNC)” — said it promoted the message that Islam and LGBT tolerance are incompatible. Outside the party, police kept at bay protesters with signs reading “Queers Against Racism.”
Though gay rights groups have pointed to Trump’s rhetoric about other minorities as evidence of intolerance, Republicans say that’s an attempt 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 the American Unity Fund, a GOP group that promotes LGBT rights.
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.
And at the Quicken Loans Arena where Trump was nominated, there were only vague allusions to gay rights from convention speakers — such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who praised police for protecting, among others, people of “every sexual orientation.”