Donald Trump just did something that no other Republican presidential nominee has done on the campaign trail: he unfurled a rainbow flag with “LGBT” written on it. As Trump made his entrance at a rally in Greeley, Colorado, on Oct. 30, he paused toward the edge of the stage, pointed at the audience, and crooked his finger as though beckoning someone. After someone—presumably a Secret Service agent—handed Trump the balled-up rainbow flag, he held up the flag and strode around the stage before handing it back to someone in the audience. He didn’t actually mention LGBT rights in the speech that followed.
His supporters didn’t miss the significance—or the fact that the mainstream media didn’t hail Trump’s landmark waving of the rainbow flag:
And flag-waving this very much is.
Certainly, Trump deserves credit for breaking symbolic barriers of associating himself with the LGBT flag. And he should be applauded for being the first GOP nominee to address LGBT people in his speeches. (For the record, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, is far more specific about her support for LGBT people, frequently addresses LGBT groups, and marched in New York City’s Pride earlier this year.)
But while these symbols are important, they don’t make up for the other ways that Trump denigrates the dignity of LGBT people.
First there’s his zeal for restricting LGBT rights—letting states ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their gender identity, opposing the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, his promise to appoint judges to the Supreme Court who will reverse the ruling, or his choice of one of America’s most rabidly anti-gay politicians as his vice president. Trump has hinted at support for letting businesses and individuals discriminate against LGBT people, as blogger Andy Towle notes. At the Republican National Convention, he implicitly endorsed an anti-gay GOP platform.
Tellingly, in Trump’s supposedly groundbreaking mentions of LGBT people, he isn’t actually speaking to LGBT people. To him, the community isn’t “you,” but rather “they.”
“And by the way the LGBT community is just—what’s happened to them is just so sad and to be thinking about where their policies are currently with this administration is a disgrace to that community,” said Trump in a speech after the horrific massacre at an LGBT Orlando nightclub in June 2016.
This is of a piece with Trump’s use of “the African-Americans.” When he talks about minorities, Trump speaks as though he’s talking about people outside the group, and who aren’t present. His rhetoric betrays that the people he wants to reach are largely white and overwhelmingly straight—and that people who are different from them don’t belong.
Of course, as he did in Greeley, Trump takes pains to show off when minorities are in the audience. But these are exceptions that prove the rule (e.g. Trump never poses for photos with, say, a “Women for Trump” poster).
So why talk about LGBT people? It’s useful. For one, it helps assuage worries of more socially liberal GOP voters that supporting Trump doesn’t mean you’re a bigot.
It also helps Trump reinforce his ominous theme that America is under terrorist siege. Since he first broached the subject after the Orlando shooting, he’s brought up the LGBT community almost exclusively in the context of vowing to protect them from terrorism and keep out “people with hate in their hearts.” And it’s hard to cheer Trump’s inclusion of LGBT people when its object is the exclusion of Muslims.