Jason Rogers doesn’t consider himself particularly politically involved. But he’s voted in every presidential race since 1996.
“My first election was Clinton’s second term — and I voted for him,” said Rogers, a corporate lawyer in Dallas. “Since then, I’ve voted for Gore, George W., Obama and Romney.”
On Nov. 3, he’ll be pulling the lever for Donald Trump for the second time.
“I had every intention of voting for Hillary in 2016, but Comey had released his statement the day before, giving me all sorts of doubts,” Rogers, 44, said. “I wasn’t thrilled with Hillary as a nominee, and I don’t trust the Clintons at all, but she acted more presidential. At the last minute, I went with Trump and have had no regrets since.”
“I don’t base my vote on my being gay. It’s not a huge concern for me.”
He isn’t blind to Trump’s faults, but said the key issues for him this election are the economy and national security.
“Back in January, the economy was going very well. Unemployment was low. Minority unemployment was very low,” he said. “And while the messaging isn’t great, I don’t think it’s so terrible to put America first.”
The exact size of Trump’s LGBTQ base is unclear. An unscientific survey last month by the gay social app Hornet indicated that 45 percent of its American respondents were voting to re-elect the president. But a Morning Consult poll from June found 19 percent of LGBTQ voters backed Trump, while GLAAD’s State of LGBTQ Voters report in September reported just 17 percent of LGBTQ registered voters were supporting the president.
GLAAD’s poll results were similar to exit poll findings from 2016, which found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters backed Hillary Clinton over Trump by 74 percent to 14 percent.
‘100 percent on board’
While the precise numbers may be uncertain, Trump’s message is appealing to some segment of the LGBTQ community.
Phil Kazmierczak, a gay real estate agent in Virginia who said he’s “100 percent on board” with the president, blames Democrats for fixating on identity politics.
“They force you to believe, with the help of liberal media bias, that you are no more than your sexuality or your gender or your race,” Kazmierczak said in an email. “They want you to believe that someone is constantly coming for your rights. If you’re gay, specifically, Democrat propaganda states that the Republicans are going to take away your rights.”
Kazmierczak called Trump a “staunch supporter of gay people and their rights,” but he said he makes a distinction when it comes to religious groups.
“He doesn’t want gay rights forced on religious institutions,” Kazmierczak said. “It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t support gay people. It means that to him, religious freedom is more important than social issues.”
Trump made a halfhearted effort to court the LGBTQ community in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. He called the massacre of 49 mostly LGBTQ people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that year an “assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity.”
At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump swore “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
And two days before Election Day, he grabbed an upside-down Pride flag inscribed with “LGBT for Trump” at a rally in Colorado and waved it around.
Once in office, however, Trump has consistently opposed LGBTQ rights — from rolling back Obama-era nondiscrimination protections to banning openly transgender service members in the military. The national LGBTQ rights group GLAAD has accused the Trump administration of 181 separate attacks on the community since his inauguration.
But as the 2020 election cycle heated up, Trump started making overtures again. On May 31, 2019, he recognized June as Pride Month for the first time in a series of tweets that doubled down on his commitment to decriminalizing homosexuality abroad.
“As we celebrate LGBT Pride Month and recognize the outstanding contributions LGBT people have made to our great Nation, let us also stand in solidarity with the many LGBT people who live in dozens of countries worldwide that punish, imprison or even executive individuals on the basis of sexual orientation,” he tweeted.
In February, Trump promoted Richard Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany, to acting director of the Office of National Intelligence. It made Grenell the first openly gay person named to a Cabinet-level position.
Three months later, Grenell was appointed the Trump campaign’s senior adviser on LGBTQ outreach. On social media, he praised his boss as “the most pro-gay president in American history.”
For Rogers, Trump’s bona fides with the community aren’t so important.
“I don’t base my vote on my being gay. It’s not a huge concern for me,” he said. “I’m not going to be a victim or try to find the worst thing to complain about. I don’t see direct anti-gay rhetoric from the president himself.”
Many gay Trump supporters say they’re tired of being told what political views are acceptable.
“A lot of people just don’t like to be told they can only think a certain way, and that’s exactly what the left does,” said Bob Kabel, chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay conservative group. “You’re accused of being a racist or a homophobe if you don’t agree with everything they say, and a lot of people are just tired of that.”
Jennifer Williams, a transgender woman, was an honorary delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention. She said some LGBTQ voters are looking beyond issues related to their sexual orientation and gender identity and are prioritizing things like unemployment and housing.
“People on the left like to forget we’re not just LGBT — we’re homeowners, we’re parents, we’re business owners,” said William, 52. “For all the reasons that other people vote for whoever they vote for, we’re going to go in the same direction.” Kabel said he likes how Trump “understands business.”
“By deregulating a lot of things, it’s really freed up the economy,” he said. “I think, pre-Covid, he did a remarkable job for minority communities in employment. The Obama administration, in particular the second term, really added a lot of environmental regulations that slowed down the economy.”
Others have incorporated their support for Team Trump into their influencer brands, like lesbian YouTuber Arielle Scarcella, gay political commentator Dave Rubin and bi glam rocker Ricky Rebel, who appeared at the Grammys in red leather chaps with the words “IMPEACH THIS” written across his backside.
In 2018, Brandon Straka was an unknown gay hairstylist and aspiring actor. After he launched a YouTube video explaining why he had decided to #WalkAway from the Democratic Party, he quickly became a right-wing social media phenomenon, with appearances on Fox News and more than a half-million Twitter followers, including Donald Trump Jr. and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
In a new video tweeted out Monday, Straka, 43, covers Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” while wearing a Make America Great Again T-shirt, over visuals of violent protests. He dedicated the clip, which has received more than 900,000 views, “to every Black/brown/LGBT person who’s been ostracized for thinking for themselves.”
This video is dedicated from me to the ceaselessly maligned Patriots in the MAGA movement. To our law enforcement under attack. To those destroyed by the politicization of a virus. To every black/brown/LGBT person who’s been ostracized for thinking for themselves.
We are all one. pic.twitter.com/mMVws6geWZ
— Brandon Straka (@BrandonStraka) October 12, 2020
While Straka’s tactic is calculated, some LGBTQ voters are legitimately connecting with Trump’s warnings of civil unrest.
“I keep hearing: ‘I cannot believe what’s happening in my city. The violence. I can’t go downtown. I can’t go to a restaurant,'” Williams said. “I think people are getting more and more nervous of what’s going on, and I think it comes down to that ‘fight or flight’ type of thing.”
Most LGBTQ people still live in urban areas, she said, and they’re concerned about quality of life issues.
“Some voters are asking themselves, ‘Do I vote as a gay person who is worried about my freedom and equality, or do I vote as someone who’s fearful for what the hell is going on in my country?’ And that’s where I think the head space opens up for people to consider voting for the administration,” Williams said.
In the first half of 2020, overall crime was down 5.3 percent from last year in 25 large American cities, with violent crime down 2 percent. The murder rate, however, went up 16.1 percent.
In August, the president’ re-election campaign launched Trump Pride, a 21-member LGBTQ advisory board led by Grenell, former New Hampshire state Sen. Dan Innes, real estate developer Jill Homan and various members of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Rob Smith, a Black gay Iraq War veteran, is on the Trump Pride board. He became active in Republican politics after the Pulse massacre, drawn to Trump’s hard line against terrorism.
Even though overturning Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal across the U.S., is still in the GOP’s official platform, Smith isn’t worried about gay rights being on the chopping block.
“Right now, there are so many gays and lesbians that are being manipulated and made to feel that they’re under constant attack all the time by this administration, which is just not the case,” he said. “For the most part, the things that we have fought for have been achieved. It’s time to start thinking a little bit more about the future.”
Like Rogers, Smith said he’s not a single-issue voter.
“We don’t need leaders to say, ‘Hey, gay people, we’re going to do these things for you,’ because a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “If Trump is helping stimulate the economy, if he is helping wind down forever wars, if he is doing things that benefit America, then gay and lesbian Americans are going to benefit, as well.”
The Democrats are taking the gay community for granted, according to Smith, who said his goal on the Trump Pride advisory board is to reach younger LGBTQ people “so that they don’t see themselves as victims.”
“It does not do anything for the long-term advancement of LGBT people for us to be cowering in the Democratic closet when there’s not a Democrat in power,” Smith said. “It makes no sense. In 2020, gays and lesbians have choices politically that we did not have 20 years ago. We need to start owning it.”
In July, the Log Cabin Republicans launched OUTSpoken, a multimedia campaign designed to “combat the half-truths, misrepresentations and outright lies that the gay left and the mainstream media proliferate.”
“They’ve thrown out their commitment to the betterment of the LGBT community,” the group’s managing director, Charles T. Moran, said in an announcement. “They’ve given up even trying to engage with the President and his Administration. It has been one, long ‘resist’ movement begotten by a full season of Intersectional Olympics.”
Asked about Trump’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community, Kabel offered a series of well-rehearsed talking points: Trump is “the most gay-friendly president,” same-sex marriage is settled law, Trump-nominated Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the pro-LGBTQ decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and the administration is doing great work on HIV/AIDS.
As an example of how “the press doesn’t give him a break,” Kabel cited the administration’s partnership with Gilead Sciences Inc. and pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, to provide and distribute HIV-prevention medication to targeted communities.
“He never got credit for it,” Kabel said. “The LGBT organizations thank Walgreens and CVS and, of course, intentionally forgot to mention Trump actually made this happen.”
In June, Trump declared that the same scientific know-how that produced an AIDS vaccine would deliver one soon for Covid-19, even though there is no AIDS vaccine.
Kabel said he wishes the Republican National Committee would have met this year to update the party’s official platform, which still states at least five times that marriage should exclusively be a union of “one man and one woman.” But he said he’s not worried about a backslide on LGBTQ rights.
“The social conservatives understand that we’ve won on marriage,” he said. “They’ve lost, we’ve won, and I think they really play it down now.”
Trump’s “offered us a real seat at the table,” Kabel added, “and I think he deserves a lot of credit for doing that.”
Trans rights: A ‘perplexing’ issue
Like many other gay conservatives, however, he seems to disconnect gay rights and transgender rights. Kabel recalled a recent article with a quotation from the conservative activist Tony Perkins that contrasted the Democratic and Republican platforms in 2016.
“The only issue Perkins raised was the transgender bathroom issue,” Kabel said. “And I thought, ‘That means we won.'”
Kabel called transgender equality “one of the most perplexing issues going.”
“Transgender people deserve support and protection just like anybody else, but it’s a very complex issue,” he said. “It’s remarkable when you hear their stories, but it’s just a very perplexing issue about how to really address it and do it so that they’re protected but other people aren’t hurt, so that people’s religious views are actually taken into consideration.”
Transgender visibility is all but absent in the Log Cabin Republicans, from their leadership to their messaging.
An OUTSpoken Instagram post compares the “LGBT left” to the “LGBT right” by putting an image of a person who appears to be transgender or gender-nonconforming next to a shirtless picture of former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, while the campaign’s store sells T-shirts bearing slogans like “gay for Tucker” “gay for Melania” and “gay not stupid.”
A new law California mandating incarcerated transgender people be housed according to their gender is framed on OUTSpoken as Gov. Gavin Newsom allowing “biological males to be housed in female prisons simply by self-identifying as a woman.”
An intra-LGBTQ rift
The Log Cabin Republicans declined to endorse Trump in 2016. When the group announced its support for his second term in August 2019, it triggered a shakeup that led to the resignations of Executive Director Jerri-Ann Henry and others.
Sarah Longwell, the first female chair of the Log Cabin Republicans’ national board, also left the group after the endorsement. She helped launch the groups Republican Voters Against Trump and Defending Democracy Together.
“Sarah’s so anti-Trump that she’s now leading one of these anti-Trump groups,” Kabel said. “I love Sarah. She’s great. I just wish she hadn’t done that.”
Longwell insisted that she still holds traditional Republican beliefs, including “restraint from the executive branch … fiscal responsibility and American leadership in the world where we treat our allies with respect.”
The problem with Trump isn’t a gay issue, she said; rather, it’s an American issue.
“I think Donald Trump is an existential threat to democracy and the country, because [he thinks] the rules don’t apply to him,” said Longwell, 40. “He thinks he’s above the law.”
She blames the president for disregarding the Constitution, cozying up to dictators and putting his own interests first, and said she is frustrated that the GOP has stood by him.
“Republicans should be a party that cares about principles and ideas, not its loyalty to one man,” she said.
She said she’ll be voting for Biden, whom she calls a centrist. “He has a message of unity, not division.”
Other LGBTQ Republicans, like Williams, straddle the line. Asked whether she’ll be voting for Trump, she tactfully replied, “The jury is still out.”
“Since New Jersey is not in play, I’ve been trying to focus on more of our down-ballot candidates who’ve sought my support and my counsel on reaching voters,” she said.
Williams, chair of the Republican Committee in Trenton, New Jersey, agrees that some LGBTQ Republicans choose to look past certain statements or policies — especially cisgender members.
LGBTQ “people who are voting for the president are most likely not going to be transgender, because we’ve been the target and the butt of most of the administration’s actions,” she said.
According to the GLAAD poll, however, 19 percent of trans and nonbinary registered voters were supporting Trump — more than either gay men (17 percent) or lesbians (11 percent).
Stephan Horbelt, a veteran LGBTQ journalist and executive editor at Hornet, the social media app, said the real surprise is that people are shocked that Trump has support in the community.
“The response I get from progressives is this refusal to accept they exist,” Horbelt said of LGBTQ Trump supporters. “Which is silly. We talk about racism in the gay community, transphobia and sexism. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there are gays who support a candidate that is all those ‘isms.'”
While Hornet’s findings were an informal survey, Horbelt said the percentage of Trump’s supporters who are LGBTQ is most likely higher than most progressives assume.
“I’ve encountered so many gay Republicans in Los Angeles, which is supposed to be a liberal bastion. Maybe it’s a response bias — people not wanting to say, even over the phone, that they’re supporting Trump.”
Horbelt said many LGBTQ people who support Trump feel their identity is just one part of who they are.
“Trump has been very clever in doing the absolute least [for us] but making the most of it,” he said. “He’s giving people a sense that he’s doing much more. By giving them a shred, he’s allowing them to make the case that he’s gay-friendly.”
He pointed to the administration’s campaign to decriminalize homosexuality, which, a year and a half after it was announced by Grenell, “has accomplished literally nothing,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with people for whom their racism or their xenophobia is stronger than their LGBT identity,” Horbelt said. “They get past it by deciding it’s about prioritizing issues.”
Horbelt said the successes of the gay rights movement have given space for LGBTQ voters to walk away from it.
“They feel like, once we got marriage equality, it was ‘mission accomplished,’ and the rest of our community is S-O-L,” Horbelt said, using an acronym for “s— outta luck.”
“The mindset is ‘we’re good.'”