There’s been a long history of politicians, primarily conservatives, weaponizing the LGBTQ community for political advantage. Go back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson’s top aide, Walter Jenkins, was caught and charged with engaging in sex with another man in a public restroom, and Republican operatives were rumored to have pushed for the publication of this story days before the November presidential election.
LBJ won handily, but it was an ominous omen. There’s no point rehashing the legislative and mental ignorance of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, and a host of others who rode waves of hate and ignorance from the late ‘80s to the mid 2000s. That was an exhausting era, since the LGBTQ message was sporadic given that so many who had a voice remained in the closet. I can recall during my time on the Hill only Barney Frank and Steve Gunderson, two of 535, who could provide positive personal punches. We’ve come a long way since then, but consideration must be given to any complacency.
Donald Trump’s diatribe against the four extraordinarily brave congresswomen should cause a rebellion among Republicans. But it has not. And this abhorrent behavior might be a harbinger that Trump and his silent party of purveyors won’t stop with color, sex, or nationality.
It might have already started. The New Republic, ran, then pulled, a homophobic article about Pete Buttigeig last week. To some, the article rang true -- it had to with the editors at The New Republic, because why would they print it? Well, for the same reason that there are apologists for Trump’s outrageous outbursts about the four congresswomen who are deemed “different.” It’s a lack of understanding that stretches out of wishy-washy acceptance. Meaning, some people may accept that they work with a person of color, tolerate a female boss, be begrudgingly kind to a family member who is transgender or gay, are neighborly neighbors with Muslims, or acknowledge the immigrant health club custodian. But, poke that acceptance with salacious, self-righteous suspicions, and that empathy may start to crack.
Who among us does not have family members who have kept suspiciously silent after we came out? Who may have accepted us, welcomed our partners, but have not the temerity to take an interest in our actual lives? To understand and learn who we are, and what we are about? Why we are not different? Why we are normal albeit special? Why our love and genders are legitimate? And why we might still fear the world?
To quote a disgraced former Republican Vice President, a “nattering nabob of negativism” is trying to give a shove to this very lack of understanding for anything on the outskirts of normality, or at least what was considered normal for the 20th century.
Where else does Trump go after he’s made you wary of your co-worker, chary of your neighbor, distrustful of the custodian, and dubious of your boss? Well, there’s that trans or gay family member that you’re just a bit skeptical about. All it could take is a torrent of tweets and that feckless family member joins the ranks of the others who should go “back to where they came from.” Or in our cases back to your birth sex or back in the closet, or back to being unmarried.
There are now 10 LGBTQ members of Congress out of the closet, countless numbers of gay state and local legislators, an HIV-positive gay NYC City Council Speaker, a lesbian person of color as Mayor of Chicago and then there’s Mayor Pete. Their constituencies have taken the time to understand these individuals, and in turn these individuals have no reason to fear. And neither do we, but we need to be prepared, because if history is any guide, and the turbulence of Trump any hint, we might be in for a bumpy ride.
John Casey is head of PR for a worldwide digital consultancy, and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City. As a contributing columnist his articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Pittsburgh Magazine, The Advocate, Ladders, and IndieWire.