Leaders of the group include (from left) Marjorie Dannenfelser, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Huelskamp.
Anti-LGBTQ activists are well-represented in Catholics for Trump, a coalition supporting Donald Trump’s reelection as president that launched Thursday night with an online event.
Cochairs of the coalition’s advisory board include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, long noted for hostility to LGBTQ rights. Members of the board include another former congressman, Tim Huelskamp, who has called marriage equality a “legal fiction”; Marjorie Dannenfelser, who has worked with Mike Pence on “religious freedom” policies allowing discrimination in health care; and Sean Fieler, who has called same-sex relationships unstable and said that being transgender “can never be normalized.”
The livestreamed online launch event, which was set to be a gathering in Milwaukee until the COVID-19 pandemic made large in-person events inadvisable, emphasized Trump’s stated anti-abortion stance, appointment of conservative judges, and support for those “religious freedom” policies, which are aimed at accommodating opposition to abortion and contraception as well as opposition to LGBTQ equality — positions that often go hand in hand.
And they certain do for members of the advisory board. Gingrich once called marriage equality a “pagan” concept, although he finally accepted it as inevitable, and he went on an anti-transgender tirade in a radio interview in 2015, in which he said he was “delighted” that Houston voters repealed the city’s trans-inclusive civil rights ordinance. He denounced the Obama administration’s guidelines on accommodating transgender students, saying boys “declare themselves transgender” in order to use girls’ restrooms and that people who support the affirmation of trans identity “are really lacking in understanding of human nature.”
Huelskamp, who is the coalition’s senior political adviser, made opposition to marriage equality a hallmark of his time in the U.S. House, where he represented a Kansas district from 2011 to 2017. When the Supreme Court issued two pro-marriage equality rulings in 2013, striking down California’s Proposition 8 and the main part of the Defense of Marriage Act, he called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and override the rulings. And at a March for Marriage in 2014, he said “real” men oppose marriage equality and that women are “desperately looking for a husband.” He also said the ultimate goal of the marriage equality movement was to destroy the institution.
Dannenfelser, president of an anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List, has been a member of the board at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal nonprofit that often represents anti-LGBTQ as well as antichoice clients; at the Supreme Court it represented a baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. She has praised the Trump administration’s creation of a Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom within the Department of Health and Human Services, designed to help health care workers opt out of procedures to which they object, no matter how marginal their role is, and worked closely with Pence on various “religious freedom” initiatives and the effort to end the Affordable Care Act.
Fieler, a hedge fund manager and chair of the American Principles Project, once told The New York Times, “The problem with gay marriage … is it promotes a very harmful myth about the gay lifestyle. It suggests that gay relationships lend themselves to monogamy, stability, health and parenting in the same way heterosexual relationships do. That’s not true.” And in 2015, he wrote on The Daily Signal, a right-wing website, that trans people are “a small, troubled minority.” He added, “Unlike the gay lifestyle, the transgender lifestyle has not been, and perhaps never can be, normalized. Americans still believe that a man, even a man who thinks he is a woman, is still a man.”
Another prominent member of the advisory board is Father Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest who often speaks out against abortion (which the church as a whole opposes, but Pavone emphasizes this issue more than many others do). And of marriage equality, he told Catholic Online in 2015, “I agree with all those who call for compassion for our LGBT brothers and sisters. But to the extent that we withhold from them the truth of God’s plan for love and marriage, we fail in that compassion and we do them a disservice beyond measure, robbing them of something to which they have a right.” During the launch event, he praised Trump’s anti-abortion moves, his immigration policies (saying they keep out “criminal aliens”), and even his response to the COVID-19 crisis, which has been widely criticized.
Cochairs of the board, with Gingrich, are political consultant Matt Schlapp and longtime Republican player Mary Matalin. Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, spoke extensively during the event; she is a former director of strategic communications for the Trump White House and now works for the reelection campaign.
Prior to the event, Mercedes Schlapp told the Washington Examiner that one of the coalition’s strategies would be to paint likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a pro-choice Catholic, as an extremist on abortion. “At the end of the day, President Trump is the most pro-life president we’ve seen in our country,” she added. “There is such a long list of things President Trump has done to support the pro-life community and to support religious liberty, which is incredibly important to those of us who are Catholic.” During the livestream, her husband said President Obama had waged a “war on religious institutions” and that Trump had stopped it.
Trump and the Catholic activists backing him are actually out of step with American Catholics as a whole, the Human Rights Campaign asserted in a Thursday blog post. “U.S. Catholics are more likely to support LGBTQ rights than the average American largely due to Catholic values of inclusion and justice,” HRC’s Lucas Acosta wrote.
The post highlighted poll results showing that 72 percent of white Catholics and 71 percent of Hispanic Catholics support LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections versus 69 percent of all Americans, and 68 percent of Catholics describe themselves as “more supportive” of transgender rights versus 62 percent of all Americans. Yet “throughout his administration, Trump has elevated Catholic anti-equality extremists,” Acosta wrote.
He has also elevated evangelical Protestants with anti-LGBTQ views. In January the Trump campaign launched its Evangelicals for Trump coalition, whose leaders are a who’s who of anti-equality activists — much like the new Catholic group.