Why a prominent LGBT rights group sees hope and “tremendous opportunity” in Donald Trump

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Donald Trump earned just 14% of the LGBT vote in the last US presidential election, the lowest percentage any Republican candidate has received since the LGBT vote has been tallied. But in the weeks since, one prominent gay rights group has placed itself staunchly in his corner—the Log Cabin Republicans, a four decades-old Republican lobbying and activist group for LGBT rights with thousands of members.

Trump equivocated on same-sex marriage throughout the presidential campaign last year. At one point he said he would appoint a US Supreme Court justice to overturn the 2015 marriage equality ruling, before saying in a post-election interview that he views that right as “settled” law. Vice president Mike Pence has a long history of opposing LGBT rights, at one stage appearing to endorse conversion therapy—while the 2016 Republican party platform also seemed to condone the highly controversial treatment.

That might explain why the Log Cabin group narrowly voted not to endorse Trump ahead of the election. Now, though, it is the “only official LGBT organization that is supporting the president,” says Gregory T. Angelo, the group’s president for the past four years.

The very fact that Trump did not denounce marriage equality outright, and the appearance of an openly gay speaker at the Republican convention, Peter Thiel, are “historic firsts,” Angelo says. He credits Trump as the “touchstone” for a series of pro-LGBT stances taken by Republican leaders during the campaign, and argues the president has followed through by reaffirming former president Barack Obama’s LGBT non-discrimination executive order—again, despite the administration’s reported initial uncertainty. In Trump’s presidency, Angelo says he sees a “tremendous opportunity” for gay rights. 

Quartz sat down with Angelo in our Washington, DC office to discuss what conservative LGBT voters think about the administration.

Quartz: Can you talk us through Log Cabin Republicans’ non-endorsement of Donald Trump?

Angelo: We withheld an endorsement, that’s right. But we certainly didn’t oppose him….we said that if Trump were to win the presidency we would support him and be more than happy to work with him and his administration. Not only have we followed through with that, but the Trump team, the transition team, has been receptive to overtures from Log Cabin Republicans.

I think this is a tremendous opportunity for LGBT Republicans. We really are in a unique position, because we are coming from a place of conversation, dialogue and advisement—as opposed to unrelenting opposition, which seems to be the battle cry of the LGBT left.

Trump put out a formal statement, saying that preservation of LGBT rights and support for the LGBT community were a hallmark of his campaign, and that he would continue to do that in his presidency. To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve had a sitting Republican president specifically issue a statement of affirmation in support of the LGBTQ community.

Beyond that, while some people may have had differences with the way the immigration and refugee executive orders were implemented, the refugee executive order actually includes a clause about those nations with ties to terrorism that are guilty of human rights abuses against people because of their sexual orientation.

Were you concerned by Trump’s about-face on marriage equality?

That certainly was a concern for us because, classic Trump, there was a tremendous amount of equivocation that happened in regard to his position on marriage equality throughout the campaign.

Yes, Trump went from saying marriage equality is the settled law to then saying he would seriously consider appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn that decision to then just days after being elected, going on national television on 60 Minutes and saying that it was settled law and the law of the land.

It’s not something I’m concerned about any longer, it’s not something that is a chief concern of our members.

So you don’t have any concern that they might overturn it?

No. Zero. None. 

It doesn’t matter if [Supreme Court nominee] Gorsuch is confirmed or if the ghost of [former Supreme Court judge] Scalia rises from the dead. It doesn’t matter if nine Scalias are on the Supreme Court. Marriage equality is here to stay.

Even hypothetically, there is no instance where someone could indicate that the presence of marriage equality does them a legitimate harm. Especially to the point where it would merit being heard by the highest court in the land to revisit a case that they settled just less than two years ago. This isn’t just me saying this—I’ve asked lawyers and legal scholars.

How do you feel about Jeff Sessions? [Trump’s attorney general consistently voted against LGBT equality measures during his time in the senate.]

 I’m willing to give him a chance…something that puts us at odds with, to my knowledge, every LGBT advocacy organization out there.

This comes from my perceptions of what it means to be an attorney general. I believe liberals feel it is the job of the attorney general to interpret the law, and conservatives feel it’s the job of the attorney general to uphold the law. There’s a key difference there.

All of the opposition to Sessions from the LGBT left was born from questions about ways he’d interpret law. And time and again during his hearing, Sessions said that he would faithfully execute the laws of the country. In his opening statement, he said explicitly that he recognized the fight for equality that the country’s LGBT community values.

What are your priorities now under Trump?

Obamacare, tax reform, death tax repeal, preservation of the second amendment, fighting radical Islamic terrorism.

For too long in this country, the issues that were important for LGBT Americans were defined almost exclusively by the left, and the gay left in particular; and that was on marriage equality and federal non-discrimination. But there’s more to being LGBT than those two issues. We have a tremendous opportunity right now to show the country that LGBT people by and large are not, or do not have to be, single issue voters.

One of the more under-reported stories over the course of the last several years since Obamacare was implemented…is what has happened to some individuals who have had HIV for years. They have had their healthcare plans cancelled and they get pushed into the Obamacare exchanges. They’re no longer allowed to be denied coverage because HIV is no longer a pre-existing condition that can exempt you from access to insurance, which is good. But they find that they cannot afford the level of care they require to access the HIV medications they need. There’s no other organization making noise about that.

On the second amendment: Log Cabin Republicans supported the 2009 Hate Crimes bill, but hate crimes against members of the LGBT community continue. Perhaps the greatest deterrent of violent crime…is to have a would-be homophobe second guess whether or not someone who they’re targeting would be able to adequately defend themselves.

We’re also the only LGBT organization that opposes the Iran [nuclear] deal. Human rights abuses against gay men and men just perceived to be gay was something that was not even on the table in the negotiations that the Obama administration, secretary [John] Kerry and secretary [Hillary] Clinton engaged on. From our position, that deal was a non-starter from day one.

On radical Islamic terrorism, Log Cabin Republicans called the Orlando massacre what it was, when the Obama administration was tip-toeing around that. This was an attack on the gay community.

Do you think a sanctioned Iran is likely to be better on gay rights?

I certainly don’t think that relieving sanctions is the best course of action that we should be taking. After pushing through this deal, Iran didn’t give any indication that they would change their position from a country where former president Ahmadinejad said there’s no gay people in Iran.

Well, the reason why is because they’re dead. Certainly, having some sort of leverage is a way to make human rights in Iran better rather than worse. I don’t think that Iran should be rewarded for having bad behavior, especially killing gay people.

Do you think that the resurgence of the extreme right plays a part in anti-LGBT hate crimes?

Just passing the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act did not do away with violence against the LGBT community in this country. I am skeptical of anyone who says that violence against the LGBT community is the direct result of the rise of the right.

The extreme right—neo-Nazis, those kinds of people. Does the rise of the alt-right create difficulty for the LGBT community within the Republican movement?

Neo-nazis and white nationalists have no place in the Republican party and I’m loathe to even dignify them as part of the right.

I’m always careful about talking about the alt-right, because it’s loosely defined. There are people who have made a point of attempting to define it themselves and [Trump advisor] Steve Bannon has said that when he was editor of Breitbart, that Breitbart was the news outlet of the alt-right.

I’m not sure it’s worth quibbling about the term ‘alt-right,’ but let’s talk about the views of that sector of Trump’s supporters.

That’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know that there have been instances where the alt-right has proudly proclaimed and called for violence against the LGBT community.

I guess I’ll frame it this way: whether it’s questions about the alt-right, whether it’s questions about the religious right, whether it’s questions about, say, Mike Pence as Trump’s vice-president, I always go back to the fact that we have a pro-LGBT president and leadership starts from the top.

Trump has been said to have a narrow set of strong beliefs, and others he goes back and forth on. Are you concerned LGBT issues may be in the latter camp? 

I would grant you that—in the sense that I don’t know that LGBT issues are a priority for a Trump administration. Certainly they weren’t among the primary issues he was focusing on during his campaign, nor were LGBT issues the reason he was elected. Trump was campaigning as a populist and the centerpiece of his campaign was immigration, trade, and Obamacare repeal.

But every time Trump has had an opportunity to distance himself from the LGBT community he’s actually done quite the opposite; whether it was the Monday after the Orlando terror massacre…or whether it was incorporating LGBT talking points into the entire GOP convention.

I can’t tell you how important and historic [the Republican] convention was—at this point it seems something of a distant memory. People always go back to Peter Thiel and Trump mentioning LGBTQ at his acceptance speech. Two very important moments…but there were affirmative mentions to LGBT individuals throughout the convention.

On day one when Rudy Giuliani said, “The police are here to protect you, regardless of your ethnicity or sexual orientation.” When Newt Gingrich highlighted the human rights abuses against lesbians and transgender individuals in Iran. By name! Newt Gingrich said ‘transgender’ on the main stage of the GOP convention! When even Ted Cruz said the bill of rights protects us all whether you’re gay or straight!

There’s a radical sea-change that’s taking place in the GOP just over the last several months and it’s because Trump has been the lightning bolt and the catalyst that has shaken the party in a good way, and made it okay to talk about LGBT issues. That’s the first step to actually achieving change, passing legislation and moving toward a more equal society.

You mentioned the fact that the Iran deal doesn’t mention anti-LGBT discrimination. What’s your organization’s view on the warming of relations with Russia?

We need more friends than enemies in the world. The Obama administration and then-secretary Clinton tried and failed to reset relations with Russia. I’m hopeful that the Trump administration’s attempt at a reset is something that would bear more fruit.

But it sounds like the failure to include LGBT rights as part of that conversation in Iran is a reason you opposed the deal?

We’ve been outspoken in the past. I guess almost four years ago Russia passed its anti-gay propaganda law—we were very outspoken against that.

I would assert that any diplomatic conversations with Russia necessarily should include human rights abuses against the LGBT community in that country. I try not to be pollyannaish about this, but I’m optimistic that this would happen in a Trump administration—we had right out of the gate the executive order he issued that referenced LGBT human rights abuses abroad.

It is a leap from saying it is a “matter of policy” and then actually acting on it in relations with foreign leaders.

It bears pointing out that the man who’s going to be engaging in those negotiations and that diplomacy is the same man who advocated that the Boy Scouts change its ban on openly gay Scouts. He’s the same man who implemented a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation and gender identity at Exxon Mobil. Rex Tillerson is not ignorant of these issues.

Where should we expect to see Log Cabin Republicans be most active coming years?

Long-term, one of the things we’re looking at in this 115th Congress—whether it comes this year or next year—is the introduction of a LGBT non-discrimination bill that comes from the right.

We publicly oppose the Equality Act [which has been proposed by LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign]…for numerous reasons, but primary among them is that it does not include in our estimation reasonable exemptions for religion.

You need to be practical—if there’s any chance of passing federal LGBT non-discrimination legislation, it necessarily needs to be introduced with Republican buy-in from the start. So, that’s something we’ve already begun advanced work behind the scenes on.

Why do you think Trump failed to attract LGBT voters?

To me it’s fairly simple—he was given no quarter of support from supposed non-partisan LGBT advocacy organizations for what was, in my estimation, the political courage he showed time and again speaking out in support of the LGBT community. He was so demonized by those same organizations, and unfairly portrayed as an abject enemy of all things LGBT that I think many drank the Kool Aid on that and were so in the tank for Hillary Clinton, who also played into those fears.

The GOP seems to be opening up to broader LGBT issues but are they ready to accept transgenderism—particularly given the “bathroom bills?”

I’m encouraged by rhetoric that I’m hearing. Newt Gingrich, not only at the GOP convention, but also at our annual dinner that he headlined in Washington, specifically talked about the violence and oppression transgender individuals face abroad and at the hands of radical Islamic terrorists.

But, more broadly speaking, I’m taking party out of this right now, the LGBT advocacy in this country needs to spend more time and concentrate more on programs designed at educating the country about who transgender people are, and the issues that are important to them. We achieved marriage equality in the US only after decades—decades that required in many cases literally going door to door in America and demystifying what it means to be in a same-sex relationship.

I am someone who was not exceptionally aware of transgender issues prior to coming to Washington four years ago to head up Log Cabin Republicans. In fact during my tenure, I advocated that the national board of directors change our mission statement to include the full acronym LGBT. Beforehand, our mission statement just said “gay and lesbian.” The reason I pushed for that was because I had the opportunity to meet with, and lobby with, so many transgender individuals, people who, as you mentioned, did not have the same degree of skin in the game on marriage equality that gay and lesbian individuals did.

There was no thoughtful pause after the marriage equality decision to give those who might not have agreed with that decision the time to realize that marriage equality in the US was no threat to them, their family or their faith.

The LGBT left’s push for immediate legislation afterwards is, I think, one of the reasons why we’ve seen blowback in terms of overly broad so-called “religious freedom” education and ridiculous legislation like these bathroom bills that have been popping up around the country, where Republicans, so-called conservatives, are literally legislating the most intimate moments of people’s lives.

You believe the bathroom bills wouldn’t have happened had there not been a push for more legislation protecting LGBT rights after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision?

I do, I do. I think the strategy should have been greater education and advocacy around transgender issues, as opposed to legislation. I think people felt threatened by it and I think their fears were unfounded, but there are people in this country, many people in this country, that still do not understand what it means to be transgender. In the absence of that education advocacy, fearmongers on the far right were more than happy to fill the vacuum with talking points like ‘no men in women’s restrooms’.

Is there any historical precedent of a ‘thoughtful pause’ working? It seems the people who have been against LGBT rights have been against them for their entire lives.

I’m not ignorant that one of the cardinal rules of politics is when you’re winning don’t stop. And I can understand how, post-marriage, people felt emboldened.

But here’s the difference—the marriage decision was a court decision…a great deal of the uneasiness that surrounded the Supreme Court’s decision among those who oppose marriage equality was the fact that it came from the courts.

What influence do you think openly gay [now former] Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos has had on relations between the LGBT community and the GOP—particularly after he was recently uninvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for his outrageous remarks?

I’m not going to speak for Milo—throughout his career he’s proven himself more than capable of speaking for himself.

CPAC is bigger than any one person, or any one organization. I’m proud that Log Cabin Republicans was accepted as full sponsors of this year’s CPAC—for the second year in a row. I’m focused on bringing our unique perspective as LGBT individuals and straight allies to issues such as our Second Amendment constitutional rights, Obamacare repeal, and the existential threat radical Islam presents to the LGBT community to this year’s event.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. The final question about CPAC was asked by email after the in-person interview.