With Republican dominance in the White House and Congress, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community faces a different political landscape than it did during the past decade. However, while many LGBTQ organizations fear a rollback of rights, conservative members of the community are optimistic. Just three weeks into the new administration, they see a champion in President Donald Trump and new opportunities for advancing LGBTQ freedoms in partnership with the religious right.
Trump’s First Weeks ‘Very Encouraging’
“Ecstatic. I am absolutely ecstatic,” said Chris Barron, former national political director for Log Cabin Republicans, a national LGBTQ conservative group, and founder of both GOProud (now defunct) and LGBT for Trump. He dismissed the removal of the White House’s LGBTQ website as “common” for any new administration and said “Trump has delivered on what he said he would deliver on.”
Gregory T. Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, called Trump’s first weeks in office “very encouraging,” specifically citing the administration’s vow to preserve LGBTQ employment protections created by President Obama in a 2014 executive order.
“Our number one priority was preservation of the LGBT executive order. The statement that it would be maintained came far sooner than even I expected,” he said.
The American Unity Fund (AUF), an LGBTQ advocacy group affiliated with the American Unity super PAC, released a statement applauding President Trump’s decision to leave in place the 2014 executive order but noted there is “still work to be done.”
LGBTQ Advocates Must ‘Embrace Republicans’
At this point, gay conservatives see opposition to the Trump administration as wrongheaded and premature. Angelo had particularly harsh words for LGBTQ advocates who recently protested against the rumored anti-LGBTQ "religious freedom" executive order.
“Public protest around executive orders that have not materialized does more harm than good for the movement at this moment,” he said. “Such a tactic,” he added, “stokes the fires” of an LGBTQ movement “that is rabid to attack our President.”
According to Barron, “groups on the left have sold their soul” to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). “If they want to be the functional equivalent of the gay arm of the Democratic Party, stop pretending to represent all LGBT people,” he added.
“If these organizations have been shut out of White House … that’s a consequence of what they did during the election cycle,” said Angelo, whose organization declined to endorse Trump for president prior to the election. “Perhaps … protest is all that they can do," he added.
Given the electoral dominance of the GOP in the last cycle, refusing to work with Republicans does not make sense, Barron and Angelo both argued.
“We have a Republican majority in the Senate for at least the next two years, a Republican President at least the next four and GOP control in the House that will likely last for decades,” Angelo said. “That’s the political landscape right now. Folks in the LGBT advocacy community are going to need to embrace Republicans at some point if LGBT equality is going to be realized outside the Northeast and West Coast.”
“We are more relevant now than we have ever been,” Angelo said of LGBTQ conservatives. He would not comment on specific offices or individuals inside the administration with whom his organization has been in contact but affirmed Log Cabin Republicans has “certainly been communicating with them.”
‘Trickling Down’ of Pro-LGBTQ Policies
Several of Trump’s cabinet nominees have been criticized for their anti-LGBTQ records. Nevertheless, the Log Cabin Republicans issued letters of support for both Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Both of those letters were requested from us by the Trump transition team,” Angelo said.
This is important, according to Deaton, because the LGBTQ community must “build new relationships with cabinet-level positions,” such as those in the Department of Education (DOE) and the State Department.
“We need to be working with the DOE and the new secretary of education about why transgender kids need to be protected in public schools,” Deaton explained.
“The State Department also has a crucial mission to play in advancing our values overseas, and I think this is where Trump’s comments can be seen as helping to stand up for the LGBT community in the face of violence,” he added.
Noting that more than 70 countries criminalize homosexuality or gender-nonconformity, Deaton said “the State Department could make progress on this over the next four years.”
“Leadership comes from the top,” Angelo said. He believes Donald Trump’s pro-LGBTQ politics are “going to start trickling down to the Senate and the House.”
Indeed, according to Deaton, “individual Republicans are receptive and are trying to figure out how to move forward.” These representatives, he added, are “looking for support from the LGBT community to make a positive case for non-discrimination protections in federal law.”
“I think they are eager to hear from the LGBT community,” Deaton said.
LGBTQ Rights & Religion: Striking ‘Right Balance’
According to conservative LGBTQ advocates, current framings of LGBTQ rights in opposition to religious liberty are impeding progress.
“I think it’s despicable that so many on the left make it seem like a zero sum game between defending rights of LGBT people and freedom of religion,” Barron said.
Rather, conservatives hope to strike a “balance” between LGBTQ equality and religious liberty. Angelo said federal anti-discrimination legislation “that includes reasonable religious freedom exemptions … has been missing for far too long.”
“I think congress should look to the growing conversation in the LGBT community on how we strike the right balance between communities of faith and LGBT communities … and recognize the significant overlap between the two,” Deaton said. “There are so many LGBT people of faith. More and more churches, synagogues and mosques are recognizing their own LGBT members.”
Congress should look to the “landmark” bill passed in the state of Utah in 2015, Deaton urged. The legislation, passed by considerable margins and supported by the Mormon Church, extended employment and housing protections for LGBTQ people, while also providing exemptions for religious liberty. Deaton argued that Congress can learn from the “spirit” of the Utah legislation, where LGBTQ advocates and religious groups didn’t get everything they want but “walked away with increased protections for both sides.” Though Deaton conceded there remain “missing pieces” in the legislation, such as those for public accommodation, he said there is “something to be learned from how they did it."
“You have to be willing to get uncomfortable and have to be willing to do that on the left and the right,” Deaton added. “Make new friends and trust people that maybe you didn’t work with in the last congress. If we don’t take that approach, I don't think LGBT issues will see progress in Washington.”
Julie Moreau is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She tweets at @JEMoreau.