© Greg Nash
CLEVELAND — A pro-LGBT push underscored much of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, coming to a crescendo during GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s speech to cap off the week.
Even before Trump’s Thursday night pledge to “protect LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” the days leading up to it had been filled with efforts to push the party into supporting more inclusive views of the gay and transgender communities.
American Unity Fund, a conservative pro-LGBT advocacy organization founded by billionaire Paul Singer, and other lobbyists and advocates spent the week lobbying Republicans from around the country against policies that allow for discrimination.
“We’re not here for Trump,” Tyler Deaton, a senior advisor for American Unity Fund, told The Hill on Thursday afternoon. “We’re here because all the fish are in a barrel.”
Republican politicians from all over the country descended on Cleveland for the convention, creating the perfect opportunity for advocates to reach as many as possible.
Pro-LGBT Republicans, both gay and straight, say the party is going through a fundamental change. Equality issues are not controversial among younger Republicans, majorities of whom support gay marriage and other measures.
Richard Grenell, an openly gay former diplomat, told The Hill he is encouraged by how much progress the party has made, even over the last four years.
During the 2012 campaign, Grenell stepped down as Mitt Romney’s national security and foreign policy spokesman after to a conservative backlash over his sexuality.
“When I walk through the convention, I see politicians, activists and staffers who swarm me to tell me how supportive they are on equality issues,” said Grenell, who has been to every GOP convention since 1992. But, he added, some of them have not said so publicly.
“I am now switching my reaction to them to say, ‘Thank you for your private support, but I need your public support.’ ”
He praised Trump as "the most supportive of the LGBT community and gay equality than any other GOP presidential nominee than we’ve ever had."
Inside the convention arena, Trump’s comment about protecting the LGBT community received large applause from the audience, and he responded by veering off his prepared remarks: “And, I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
No Republican presidential nominee has mentioned gay or transgender individuals in a convention speech in at least 16 years.
Trump had already separated himself from other Republican policymakers during the campaign, criticizing a controversial North Carolina law requiring individuals to use restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates.
While his speech capped off a series of public and private shows of support for the LGBT community in Cleveland, the convention came only days after the GOP platform committee ratified what some called the most anti-LGBT Republican platform document in history.
“I like to say that this platform makes the 2004 platform look like it was wrapped in a rainbow flag,” said Christian Berle, a Republican delegate from Washington, D.C., who formerly worked for Freedom to Work, an organization that advocates for LGBT anti-discrimination policies.
The platform items — including a condemnation of same-sex marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples, and language mirroring the concept of the North Carolina transgender bathroom law — passed despite dissent from roughly two-dozen people on the GOP platform committee, including Rachel Hoff, a D.C. delegate and the first openly gay member of the committee.
“I think it is mostly symbolic. The amount of Americans who actually read the document is exceptionally few,” Hoff told The Hill at an American Unity Fund event on Wednesday featuring reality star and transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner.
But Hoff added: “I think it’s important in marking the trajectory of the party … and it’s really dangerous that we’re actually going backwards on LGBT rights.”
Congress has also failed to take up LGBT anti-discrimination policies, even days after the deadly shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
House Republicans last month blocked a vote on an amendment attached to a spending bill that would ensure federal contractors could not discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification.
There is no federal statute that grants LGBT individuals protection from discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations.
But the platform items and anti-LGBT actions at the state and federal level were barely reflected on the main convention stage.
Speaking shortly before Trump, venture capitalist Peter Thiel declared that he was proud to be gay, becoming the first convention speaker ever to do so. The crowd in Quicken Loans Arena erupted with loud cheers and applause.
Although openly gay, Thiel has not talked publicly about LGBT or equality issues. The speech focused on urging Republicans to stop fighting on social issues and focus on the economy and foreign policy.
“When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won,” he said. “Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom.”
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMore than 10,000 migrants await processing under bridge in Texas Senators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails MORE (R-Texas) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich each made positive mentions of gays, lesbians and transgender people on Wednesday evening.
“Gay or straight, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of all of us to live according to our conscience,” Cruz said.
Lynne Patton, the vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation, declared “LGBTQ lives matter” in her Wednesday primetime speech.
In a Sidewire chat with Jonathan Allen on Thursday morning, Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo reacted with awe: “I can't stress enough how historic last night's speeches were,” he said, speaking specifically of Cruz and Gingrich.
American Unity Fund hosted the “Big Tent Brunch,” held in a large white tent outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, helped by other LGBT or Republican groups and corporate sponsors.
“The Republican Party needs to understand,” Jenner, a Republican, said during the brunch. “[Republicans] need to know people who are trans.”
Talk show host Montel Williams also gave an impassioned speech to open the event, talking about how the LGBT community needs straight allies to help overcome intolerance. He appealed to the conservative ideals of individual freedom and liberty, speaking about serving 22 years in the Marine Corps and about being a black child during the intense racism of the 1960s.
"These people were screaming at me and looking at me with such anger in their eyes," he said. "There is a LGBT child out there right now, sitting in their bedroom, thinking the same thing I did."
"We need to engage with Republicans at every single level," Williams said.
Some members of Congress — including Reps. Darrel Issa of California and Ken Buck of Colorado, according to Time — attended the brunch. Deaton said that about a dozen came overall, though he wouldn’t name names.
“There have been so many people who have said, ‘Thank you for putting on this event,’ ” Deaton said, adding that many of the policymakers who have thanked him have not yet openly supported LGBT equality issues.
The show of silent support shows that despite the forward steps taken by Republicans in Cleveland, some hurdles remain to accomplish the policy goals that LGBT groups want.
There were also other figures at the Republican convention who have had a history of being intolerant toward gay and transgender communities.
Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceEthics group files complaint against former Pence chief of staff Marc Short Pence aiming to raise M ahead of possible 2024 run: report Congress could stop Milley's nuclear weapons quandary from happening again MORE, Trump’s running mate, signed a religious freedom law last year that critics said would enable businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Following intense pressure, Pence signed an amendment that made it clear that LGBT patrons could not be refused service because of their sexual identity.
Other primetime convention speakers, such as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, have a long history of anti-LGBT advocacy.
Perkins’s organization has fought against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, pushed for a U.S. Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and criticized the Pentagon for allowing transgender soldiers to openly serve in the military.
“The Family Research Council believes that homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed,” its website says. “It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects.”
Advocates, however, say GOP opposition to LGBT rights is slowly dying, thanks in part to the persistent and sometimes clandestine conversations about why the issue is important.
“It’s not a coincidence that this has happened,” Deaton said, referring to Thiel being chosen to speak and Hoff serving on the platform committee. “This is a response to the pressure on the party to reform itself … and the fact that LGBT Republicans are organized.”