Gay GOP leaders struggle to keep movement aligned with Trump

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Barely 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, gay Republicans are sharply divided over whether he is making good on his campaign promise to be a “real friend” to the LGBT community.

To the doubters, the president of the nation’s most prominent Republican LGBT group is urging: Give Trump more time.

“Donald Trump broke many taboos when he ran for president in 2016,” said Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans. “Among those was the longstanding, unofficial Republican tradition of, you can’t say ‘gay,’ you can’t even mention the LGBT community, let alone mention them in a positive way.”

In an interview with McClatchy in downtown Washington, Angelo conceded that the Trump administration has made a number of missteps that have enraged the LGBT community, which is again on edge amid reports of an upcoming religious freedom executive order that could negatively affect LGBT people. But Angelo — who strongly opposes an overly broad executive order — also argued that Trump has proactively highlighted his support for the community, both on the campaign trail and in office, signaling to other Republicans that it’s politically acceptable to strike a more accepting tone.

And on issues over which the administration has stumbled, Angelo added, they have appeared receptive to hearing pushback from the Republican LGBT community.

A major test of that receptivity will come next week.

Angelo said that he and several transgender Log Cabin Republican members have been invited to meet with Department of Education officials on May 9, where the LGBT activists will offer recommendations on potential replacement guidance for protecting transgender students.

The invitation comes after the administration faced widespread criticism for scrapping Obama-era protections for transgender students related to bathroom and facility use in public schools. The move earlier this year drew rebukes from Republicans including outgoing Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who has a transgender child and is considered a strong ally of the LGBTQ community, and Log Cabin Republicans also protested the decision.

To Angelo, the administration’s willingness to meet with Republican LGBT activists now is the latest sign that the Trump White House is friendlier to the community than conservative orthodoxy would generally allow.

But the White House is still a hard sell to Trump’s many LGBT critics, plenty of gay Republicans included.

“Obviously during the campaign, there were certain overtures made to the LGBT community, certain suggestions that he was going to be a different type of Republican president when it came to LGBT issues,” said John Musella, a former chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans of California. “I’m not sure he’s fully lived up to those expectations based on how he’s conducted himself, the executive orders he’s signed and the nominees he’s put forth.”

Critics point to top administration officials who have long records of opposition to gay rights (though Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one source of concern, has recently said that gay marriage is settled law), and there is mounting anxiety about Army Secretary nominee Mark Green, who has made incendiary remarks about LGBT people.

A possible religious freedom executive order could also limit protections against discrimination for gay people. The same issue caused major headaches for now-Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative who previously served as governor of Indiana. In a follow-up call, Angelo sounded a sharper note, calling that experience an “unabashed fiasco” for Pence.

“If the rumors are true and the executive order is as bad as people say it is, and Trump indeed signs it, it will be halted by the courts almost immediately,” he said. “I sincerely hope the president does not want another executive order to fail.”

Meanwhile, the transgender directive rollback resonated well beyond Washington, alarming LGBT Republican activists across the country.

“Some people feel he is very supportive of LGBT rights, others feel, they’re very cautious, a wait and see attitude, let’s see what he does,” said Dale Baggs, the president of the Orange County, Calif. chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. “People were not real happy when he rolled back the rights Obama put in place regarding transgender individuals.”

That chapter endorsed Trump during the campaign. But Baggs, describing the conflicting views within the community, noted that “there have been members that have left the organization,” in part, he surmised, because of disagreements about Trump.

In the interview, Angelo acknowledged that the Republican gay movement is dealing with polarization over Trump, mirroring the rest of the fractious GOP. And he nodded to the uncertainty of dealing with the new commander-in-chief, a political neophyte until now, with little record to reference.

“At best, Trump is a friend to the LGBT community, albeit one not especially versed in matters of granular policy,” Angelo said. “At worst he’s someone who’s live and let live, is laissez faire, is not making a point of focusing on these issues during his presidency, allowing past precedent and policy to stand. If the latter is more true than the former, it is cause for concern, because it creates a vacuum.”

Angelo said repeatedly that he was optimistic but cautious, also adding, “there are certainly far-right voices not only concerned, but obsessed with anti-LGBT policy. If those individuals receive an outsize voice . . . in this administration, it would be cause for concern.”

But for the most part, Angelo emphasized that optimism, arguing that Trump has made it more acceptable within the Republican Party to talk about at least some of the challenges facing the gay community. He noted, for example, United Nations Amb. Nikki Haley’s condemnation of reported Chechen abuse of gay men. Those concerns have been echoed by Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina. And Rep. Scott Taylor, a freshman Republican from Virginia, introduced his first piece of legislation recently — it’s aimed at combating housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Leadership comes from the top,” Angelo said. “Republicans, rank-and-file or otherwise, are seeing that it’s not only OK but right to step up with words of support for the LGBT community now.”

Vincent Foster, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Miami, added that Trump deserved praise for maintaining Obama-era workplace protections for LGBT people, a decision the White House robustly defended at the time, adding that the “president is proud to have been the first ever G.O.P. nominee to mention the L.G.B.T.Q. community in his nomination acceptance speech.” The order is remaining in place, the statement noted, at the president’s directive.

“We are very happy he did that,” Foster said. Trump is “the first Republican who ran openly saying he’s going to protect LGBT rights, he’s a friend of the community, an ally. He’s done just that.”

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has already sought to cultivate a reputation as a friend of LGBT people. Asked how the president could cement a similar title, Angelo noted that June is LGBT pride month. His organization has already asked the White House to publicly recognize it as such — a small gesture, he said, that would go a long way.

The White House didn’t respond when asked whether they planned to do so, and didn’t offer comment for this story.

To the broader LGBT community, which is largely liberal and supportive of Democratic candidates, Trump’s overtures to gay Americans are simply lip service.

Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a major LGBT rights advocacy group, said the gay community opposed Trump in historic numbers in November, and argued that activists’ fears were well-founded. LGBT activism has only intensified since then, according to Griffin, whose organization is plotting its strategy for the 2018 congressional elections.

“On the positive front, never in my career have I seen LGBTQ people more mobilized, more activated in communities all across the country,” he said. “No doubt that the community is going to turn out in record numbers in the special election, in midterms and in the presidential in 2020.”

Angelo warned Democrats against blanket targeting of Republicans. After all, he noted, some of the most vulnerable Republican House members facing elections in 2018 are also among the most socially moderate.

“A lot of Republicans who come from districts that only slightly lean Republican or districts that voted for Hillary Clinton tend to be the most LGBT supportive Republicans we have in the House of Representatives today,” he said. “So I’d caution Democrats against making it a point of targeting pro-LGBT Republicans in 2018 because the chances of the House remaining in Republican control in 2019 are far greater than the chances of Democrats obtaining control of the House in 2019. If we want to see continued movement on LGBT equality we’re going to need strong pro-LGBT voices within the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.”

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