CLEVELAND — By the way some media framed it, Donald Trump’s mention of "L, G, B, T… Q people" at his acceptance speech on Thursday was the stuff of history: "For the first time in history, a Republican nominee has mentioned the LGBTQ community in a GOP nomination acceptance speech," ABC News reported.
There was also a previous moment in which Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel told the crowd he’s "proud to be gay" — and they, a bit surprisingly, applauded.
Together, all of this might seem like the Republican Party is finally, after years of many culture wars, turning over a new leaf on LGBTQ issues.
But people should hold the champagne. (Preferably forever, since alcohol is bad.) What Trump and Thiel said is only worth celebrating if you hold the Republican Party to an extremely low bar on LGBTQ rights. What’s worse, their comments come at a time in which the party accepted a platform that is tremendously anti-LGBTQ. And as far as Trump’s personal motivations for his comments, they’re in fact to inspire just another type of bigotry.
What Trump and Thiel said really isn’t as impressive as it may seem
Let’s break down what Trump and Thiel actually said.
Here is Trump:
Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted [the] LGBTQ community. No good. And we're going to stop it.
As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology. Believe me.
And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.
On air, the moment — particularly the last sentence — came off as genuinely sincere. Trump struggled to say "LGBTQ," and he seemed truly happy that people applauded his statement.
But what’s the actual substance here? Essentially, all Trump is saying is that anti-LGBTQ violence is bad. That’s true, but it’s also a very low bar for any cause of celebration. Are we really going to jump up and down with joy that someone said murder is "no good"?
And here is Thiel:
The key moment: "I am proud to be gay," Thiel said, to rising applause. "I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American."
What’s notable here is that Republicans are not just applauding that Thiel is gay. When he first said he’s "proud to be gay," the applause was pretty light. It’s only when Thiel said that he’s proud to be a Republican and an American that the cheers really took off.
This completely changes the tone of Thiel’s comments. By saying that he’s American and Republican first, Thiel is effectively discarding his gay identity when it comes to politics — saying that he can put aside some of the party’s bigotry on LGBTQ issues because he cares much more about the party’s economic policies.
"I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform," Thiel added. "But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline. And nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump."
This reaction doesn’t mean the party is wholly embracing an openly gay man. This is the party embracing an openly gay man who effectively says he doesn’t care about LGBTQ issues because he likes the party’s economic policies. That’s a fine decision to make for Thiel, but it doesn’t show any substantial advancement on the part of the party to cheer that on. It’s essentially saying, "Hey, you can be bigots. Whatever. I like that you’ll lower my taxes."
After all, as Thiel mentioned, there is a lot for LGBTQ rights activists to disagree with in the Republican Party’s official platform.
The Republican platform continues to be a disaster for LGBTQ people
It is not clear how much the Republican platform will guide future policy, but it is still useful as a means to check the party’s pulse on certain issues. And when it comes to LGBTQ issues, the party is still extremely regressive.
The 2016 platform, which the party approved this week, includes continued opposition to marriage equality, support for North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, support for anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy, and a tacit condemnation of same-sex parents.
It’s hard to overstate how damaging some of these planks are. Conversion therapy, in which therapists try to forcefully change a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, is extremely harmful and potentially deadly. It has been condemned by various medical organizations — the American Psychological Association, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and American Counseling Association — in part because it can heighten LGBTQ people’s already-high chances (due mostly to discrimination) of mental health issues, depression, and suicide.
What’s even more telling, though, is what the platform left out. Katy Steinmetz and Zeke Miller reported for Time (emphasis mine):
The 56-member group that is finalizing the party’s platform in advance of the GOP convention had rejected Rachel Hoff’s passionate appeal to acknowledge Republicans’ "diversity of opinion" on marriage the day before. And the same committee voted down her suggestions on Tuesday to acknowledge the murders of LGBT people in the Middle East and in Orlando, where the deadliest shooting in U.S. history occurred at a gay club exactly one month before.
Trump may be ready to condemn anti-LGBTQ violence and murders. But the Republican platform isn’t.
For Trump, the goal is to inspire LGBTQ people into a different kind of bigotry
As far as Trump’s seemingly LGBTQ-friendly rhetoric goes, there’s another reason to be cautious: He’s essentially trying to turn LGBTQ people into Islamophobic bigots.
This isn’t a new strategy. As my colleague Dylan Matthews explained, European right-wingers often use Middle Eastern countries’ horrific records on gay rights to try to foster Islamophobic sentiments among LGBTQ communities — a sentiment they can tap into to garner support for restrictions on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries and punitive anti-terrorism policies. It’s effectively pro-gay Islamophobia.
Marine Le Pen, of the Front National in France, is among the most successful far-right leaders in Europe and has a good shot at finishing first in the initial round of presidential elections next year. She's also fastidiously courting the gay vote by appealing to the specter of Muslim homophobia. A poll last year found that her party was winning a quarter of Paris's gay voters, compared with only 16 percent of straight ones — despite Le Pen’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
This is essentially what Trump is trying to reproduce. He opposes same-sex marriage. His party platform contains a bunch of anti-gay policies. But maybe you can come to his side, he hopes, because you’ll be so scared of Muslims due to terrorist attacks that your Islamophobia will trump your attention to LGBTQ issues. (It’s worth emphasizing that terrorism remains extremely rare in the US.)
So Trump is okay with making the party less anti-gay if it makes the party more anti-Muslim. It’s trading one type of bigotry for another.
This isn’t a historic push toward equal rights in the Republican Party. It’s a con, based on a decontextualized, exaggerated reading of some of the horrible events that have happened over the past couple of years. It’s not worth celebrating.