It's not easy for LGBTQ+ Republicans in the age of Donald Trump. Some have left the Republican Party or at least say they support Democrat Joe Biden for president. Their reasons vary, as there are those who say --surprisingly -- that the party is less homophobic than it used to be but that it has abandoned conservative principles such as limited government and fiscal responsibility. And some, like officials with the Log Cabin Republicans (which has endorsed Trump for reelection), say there's still very much a place for LGBTQ+ people in the party.
But several prominent gay conservatives or moderates have no love for Trump.
"The current president is erratic and narcissistic," says Rich Tafel, who founded Log Cabin Republicans in 1993 and was its executive director for 10 years (there was previously a federation of local gay Republican clubs under the Log Cabin name), though he is no longer with the organization. Trump is no conservative, Tafel adds, as he's inflated the federal deficit and used public office for his own purposes.
"The most important issue for me as a conservative is a respect for institutions, a respect for how change takes place," says Tafel, who calls himself fiscally conservative and socially moderate, opposed to racism, homophobia, and antiimmigrant rhetoric, and favoring incremental change. In this year's presidential race, "I would say the conservative candidate is Joe Biden," he says.
Another gay conservative who supports Biden is Jim Kolbe, who represented an Arizona district in the U.S. House as a Republican from 1985 to 2007, being reelected several times after coming out in 1996. He changed his voter registration from Republican to independent in 2018, but he says his values haven't changed; the party has.
"I regard myself as still very conservative on fiscal policy, much more moderate on social issues," Kolbe says. But, he says, he no longer hears Republicans decry deficits or debt, and they've grown protectionist on trade and are no longer welcoming to immigrants. And now the party, he says, has "become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump operation." Kolbe says Biden will have his vote; although he disagrees with Biden in many areas, he lauds the Democrat's character.
Another gay former congressman, Steve Gunderson, can't say who he's voting for because as president and CEO of the Association of Career Education Colleges and Universities, he must remain publicly neutral and work with elected officials of all parties. But "I've always called myself a Lincoln Republican, and that hasn't changed," says Gunderson, who represented a Wisconsin district from 1981 to 1997. He does admit that Trump is different from him.
Gunderson offers a more common summation of the Republican Party. "There are many people who are LGBTQ who happen to be fiscal conservatives who will find a home in the party," he says, but "on the human rights side, the party has a long way to go."
Some LGBTQ+ Republicans do support Trump. Log Cabin's national organization endorsed him for reelection in an August 2019 Washington Post op-ed, citing his pledge to end the spread of HIV by 2030 and his administration's campaign to decriminalize homosexuality globally.
"Those are two things we could really put our arms around," says Charles Moran, Log Cabin's managing director. Of course, not everyone with the group agreed; its first female executive director, Jerri Ann Henry, resigned over the op-ed. She did not grant an interview for this article.
Moran says he doesn't think the Trump administration is anti-LGBTQ+, nor is the president himself, despite the many actions that most LGBTQ+ Americans consider homophobic or transphobic, such as Trump's transgender military ban or opposition to the Equality Act, a comprehensive federal antidiscrimination bill. "I don't see those as being, quote, attacks on the community," he says.
Trans people already in the military have been grandfathered in instead of being discharged, he says. (Editor's note: Those who came out before the policy went into effect in April 2019 do not face discharge, although anyone who has come out publicly since then and seeks to transition does, and trans people are barred from enlistment.) Log Cabin did publicly oppose the ban when Trump announced it in 2017, Moran adds.
The Equality Act, he says, is problematic because Republicans weren't invited to have input. The party instead, he notes, supports a bill called the Fairness for All Americans Act, which would have much broader religious exemptions than the Equality Act.
Kolbe says he doesn't think Trump is personally anti-LGBTQ+ but does play to evangelical Christians who have those views. Tafel also says he doesn't find Trump bigoted, but acknowledges that the party made a "Faustian bargain" with the religious right in the late 20th century. Tafel himself is pastor of the Church of the Holy City, an inclusive congregation in Washington, D.C., that is definitely not part of the religious right.
But Tafel says he sees less homophobia coming from Republicans these days. In 1993, no one in the party would meet with him, he says, and Republican politicians had little understanding of AIDS as it devastated the community. Now he finds widespread support for LGBTQ+ rights among younger conservatives, and they will be the key to having a healthy conservative party and for groups like Log Cabin to remain relevant, he says.
"I think the torch should be passed to the next generation," he says, echoing a Democratic president, John F. Kennedy. It's time for many people from his generation to step down, says Tafel, who is 58 and, in addition to his other activities, is working on a project for Pepperdine University on the future of conservatism. "We need to mentor younger people," he says. While no longer connected with Log Cabin, he did help the organization recruit younger board members in recent years -- but they left over the Trump endorsement, he says. He also urges transgender people, the most marginalized segment of the LGBTQ+ community, to educate conservatives about the issues affecting them.
Gunderson says the party in general needs to do better outreach to LGBTQ+ people, African-Americans, Latinx people, and other underrepresented groups. He further encourages LGBTQ+ Republicans and conservatives to run for office, starting at the local level. "We need to build, in the baseball term, the farm team," he says. Moran says Log Cabin is definitely stepping up its outreach. "We've known that one of our biggest challenges is awareness," he says. This summer the group launched a digital campaign, Outspoken, with the website GetOutspoken.com and a social media presence. "We're going out there and targeting gay conservatives and disaffected Democrats and independents," he says.
How many LGBTQ+ people will be drawn in to Log Cabin or other conservative groups or the Republican Party in general is an open question, but some activists do express hope that there will be a place for those who don't consider themselves liberal. "I'll be fighting for a healthy conservative party," Tafel says.