Call it the convention that dared not speak our name. LGBTQ people earned not a single mention during Republicans’ pageant in red, through four nights of televised speeches last month.
This refusal to acknowledge the existence of more than 15 million LGBTQ people, 5 percent of the populace and residents of every ZIP code in America, shows a paralyzing hypocrisy. The Republican Party depends on anti-gay intolerance to rev up its base at election time but has to feign tolerance when the broader public is watching, knowing bigotry turns off a key slice of getable voters.
The GOP platform, held over from 2016, embraces the brutal practice of reparative therapy to coerce youth to renounce their emotions and identity. Most Republican candidates oppose and even seek to nullify existing protections in law that protect the safety of LGBTQ people, including in medical settings, marriage and the adoption process. Still, the party covets the support of donors who cringe at overt homophobia. Stuck in this dilemma of the party’s own making, silence can be as good as it gets.
The run-up to the GOP convention included two anti-LGBTQ slurs that were anything but quiet. In Kansas City, the baseball play-by-play announcer of the Cincinnati Reds, Thom W. Brennaman, was caught on a microphone talking about “a fag capital of the world.” During the game, and despite apologies, Brennaman, who happens to be a past donor to the Republican Party and candidates, was suspended and banished from the broadcast booth.
Several commercial sponsors and professional sports have at long last put anti-gay slurs on a par with other forms of bigotry as disqualifiers. Conservative politics have not caught up. Witness U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, who last month labeled his opponents as “liberal, socialist pansies,” a dated anti-gay epithet.
The silence observed at the GOP convention is familiar to those of us who contended for years with Republican parents and relatives. No mention was a concession or, as perhaps they let us know later, an indulgence of our presence at the dinner table or the reunion.
But times are changing. By disappearing any mention of gay people, the GOP convention reflects a state of denial that is itself disappearing.
More than 75 percent of Americans claim an openly LGBTQ friend, coworker or family member (and where exactly are the outliers hiding?). Polling in 2019 at the outset of the first-ever serious campaign for president by an “out” candidate, Pete Buttigieg, showed that 68 percent of Americans were comfortable or enthusiastic about a bid like his for the nation’s highest office.
That message of inclusion and pride was both shown and told at the Democratic convention the week before. Buttigieg, a military veteran, spoke plainly about coming out and getting married. Lori Lightfoot, the lesbian mayor of Chicago, Danica Roem, the transgender state delegate from Virginia and Robert Garcia, the gay mayor of Long Beach, all had significant moments on camera. So did Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of gay hate crime victim Matthew Shepard, in Wyoming.
The late conservative commentator Marvin Liebman argued that homophobia was a glue that held the Republican Party together. A gay man who came out late in life, he gave many conservative operatives their first jobs and lived long enough to make them reckon with the inconvenient fact of his sexuality, repressed for decades but expressed without shame in the seven years before his death in 1997.
Coming out still takes courage, as many a teenager can testify. The policies of the Trump administration, whether to take away anti-bias protections in health care, to deny transgender students access to restrooms of the gender they identify with or to ban transgender people from the military, perpetuate stigma and make the path of openness no easier.
At Republicans’ convention in Cleveland in 2016, one month after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, this president showed he could say “LGBT.” But in his quest for re-election, while flouting laws against using federal installations as props and staging areas during four nights on television, the large and diverse community of LGBTQ Americans never got named a single time. That refusal to value the lives and votes of one in 20 Americans—and those who love us unconditionally—is another testament to the cowardice of this presidency and the party that made it possible.
Hans Johnson has advised LGBT organizations and ballot measure campaigns in nearly every state. A longtime Washingtonian and former Blade columnist, he now lives in Los Angeles.