Donald Trump’s been accused of being a bully and a bigot. But he stands out among Republican presidential hopefuls for his comparative sensitivity to one politically potent minority group: the gay community.
Trump has advocated for banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. He criticized a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court found, earlier this year, that the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry. He is also one of only two Republican candidates — along with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — that the Human Rights Campaign deems to have even a “mixed” record on gay rights
“He is one of the best, if not the best, pro-gay Republican candidates to ever run for the presidency,” said Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, an advocacy group for LGBT Republicans. Trump would do no harm on same-sex marriage, Angelo said, and has a “stand-out position” on non-discrimination legislation.
That’s not to say the real-estate mogul and former reality TV star trumps Democrats when it comes to issues of importance to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley are all vocal advocates for most of the priorities of the LGBT community. Nor does it mean gay and lesbian Republicans will ignore Trump’s treatment of other minority constituencies — or base their votes on LGBT issues.
But it does mean that Trump has an opening to draw support from gay Republicans in the primary, and that could matter in states where the LGBT community is particularly well organized. It also means he could get financial and political support from the Log Cabin Republicans and their allies in the general election. Whether or not he’s the favored Republican among gay and lesbian voters, Trump could be their ally if he makes it to the White House.
Social issues were absent from Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary debate in Las Vegas, the first GOP confab since the Paris and San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks. But even without emphasizing his stance on issues important to LGBT voters — and perhaps in part because he doesn’t — Trump appears to be gaining traction with gay Republicans.
Pax Hart, a 45-year-old software engineer in New York, was a Rand Paul supporter and low-dollar donor until he saw video of Trump’s immigration speech in Phoenix, Arizona, this summer. Where some voters see xenophobia in Trump’s promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and his proposal to put a moratorium on Muslims traveling to the United States, Hart, who is gay, says he sees policies that would prevent dilution of LGBT rights in the country.
“We are importing people who are the absolute most hostile to gays and lesbians,” Hart said of discrimination against LGBT citizens in some Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. “We’re bringing in people who are indoctrinated that gays [should be] exterminated.”
As Hart points out, Trump is hardly emphasizing his positions on gay rights or social issues as he seeks the nomination in a party heavily influenced by religious conservatives.
“It’s not that he’s an advocate or anything like that,” Hart said. “It’s not an issue for him. It’s about fairness for him.”
But among the top candidates for the nomination, Trump’s tone, temperament and record are distinct.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz backs a constitutional amendment that would reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and has opposed workplace anti-discrimination legislation. Likewise, Florida Senator Marco Rubio opposes marriage rights and efforts to ban employment discrimination. And Ben Carson, who is mostly in line with Cruz and Rubio on policy, has further angered LGBT-rights groups with his rhetoric.
Trump, too, opposes same-sex marriage. But he criticized the Kentucky clerk, and, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter this year, he condemned Republican candidates who called for a reversal of the court’s judgment.
“Anybody that’s making that an issue is doing it for political reasons,” he said. “The Supreme Court ruled on it.”
Of course, Trump’s moderation on gay rights won’t bring him many votes from LGBT Democrats. Boasting a more tolerant record than the rest of the Republican Party hardly merits a medal, they say.
“The truth is if you are a Republican who is either gay or a Republican for whom gay rights are important, there is nobody in that field who is attractive to you,” Richard Socarides, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton and prominent gay-rights advocate, said.
“Trump, because he was part of the New York business community and obviously knew a lot of gay people, probably has supported gay rights measures as one-offs,” Socarides said. “But at the core of the gay civil-rights movement, are ideas of diversity and inclusion. Of all the candidates he is probably the least supportive of diversity and inclusion.”
And therein lies the rub for Angelo’s Log Cabin Republicans. They have asked for an audience with Trump, and in January they are due to begin discussing their criteria for endorsing whomever the GOP nominates for president. Angelo qualified his praise for Trump’s record with the caveat that he’s been polarizing on other issues. That, Angelo said, “is something that should at least come into the discussion.”Since 1992, the Log Cabin Republicans have endorsed or withheld their endorsement from Republican nominees based on key issues. But Trump might be able garner its support.
Whether Trump’s record is good enough for Log Cabin Republicans, the Human Rights Campaign argues the differences between Trump and his GOP rivals are minimal on the issues of greatest importance to the LGBT community.
“Not one of the major Republican candidates supports the Equality Act, which would guarantee full federal equality for LGBT people by adding them to our nation’s civil rights laws,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs at the organization. “Not one of them supports marriage equality, but several say they’ll appoint justices who’ll seek to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling. Not one of them has vowed to protect President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT federal contractors, though some have vowed to immediately repeal it. “Trump is no different, and he is not an ally of the LGBT community.”
The group’s website makes clear, however, that Trump is the least offensive of the Republican candidates for supporters of LGBT rights — with the possible exception of Christie. Though Trump can’t expect to pick up support from large numbers of gay and lesbian Democrats in a general election, his record and rhetoric may win him the backing of LGBT Republicans in the primary, and, if he wins the nomination, next November.