Confirmation fight over Trump pick exposes blurred lines in GOP-LGBT activism

Confirmation fight over Trump pick exposes blurred lines in GOP-LGBT activism
© Getty Images

Richard Grenell is not shy about three things: he is a Republican; he supports Donald Trump; and he is gay. When the president announced his nomination as Ambassador to Germany nearly six months ago, his sexuality wasn’t an issue for Senate Republicans; nor has it been problematic for a number of influential Germans who have urged his confirmation. He is arguably one of the most experienced and qualified ambassadorial nominations Trump has made, thus far.

ADVERTISEMENT
In February, when Sarah Sanders went on offense to attack Senate Democrats for their “historic obstruction,” it was unsurprising that she cited Grenell as the case study. Even before this, the grassroots and institutional support for his confirmation was evident from nearly all quarters of modern Republicanism. The most visible departure from traditional GOP dogma has been that Republicans are not supporting him despite his sexual orientation, they seem to be backing him because of it, or at least in part.

The administration and senior Republicans have not been shy in touting his sexuality. So is the party suddenly dabbling in identity politics? Maybe a little. But are they sick of the unrelenting inaccurate attacks from the left that their party is too white, too male, too straight? You bet.

The fight over Richard Grenell isn’t the cause of the clearly changing sentiment within the GOP; it’s more of the fulcrum than the spark. There have long been Log Cabin Republicans, now dutifully championing the fact that one of their own will likely be the highest-ranking gay official in U.S. history. Yet now, there seems to be a larger presence of openly gay Republicans than ever before; and consistent with polling data, no one in the party really seems to mind.

Gay conservatives have become more visible and vocal within the Republican movement over the last 20 years, but more so since the 2016 RNC, dubbed “the most pro-LGBT convention ever.” In one night, three speakers made a point of mentioning LGBT rights, including Peter Thiel, who received a rousing applause for exclaiming, “I’m proud to be gay.” At an ancillary event called The Big Tent Brunch, Caitlyn Jenner told the crowd, “It was easy to come out as trans; hard to come out as Republican.” Even Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump has had a rough October Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters MORE made a point to remind the packed Quicken Loans Arena that the Bill of Rights extends to people whether they are “gay or straight.”

Over two decades, the prominence of conservative LGBT pundits on TV and in print also grew exponentially. New York mag’s Andrew Sullivan was a pioneer in the field, and continues to be one the sharpest critics of liberal gay-rights activists and their “radicalization of the movement’s ideology and rhetoric.”

The current crop sees a lot of airtime, and it’s mostly attributable to their status as fan favorites of Republican viewers. In 2016, Grenell was an in-demand early supporter of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE, certainly catching the candidate’s eye; and on the opposite side, Tim Miller was one of CNN’s go-to #NeverTrump voices.  

For several years, the clear leader of the pack has been Guy Benson, editor of Townhall and Fox contributor, who often co-hosts “Outnumbered.” This January he recorded an educational short for PragerU, essentially an “Intro to gay conservatives 101.”

Strategist and pundit Chris Barron is also well-known, often mixing it up on “Kennedy’s” party panels or on “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered.” The affable hockey fanatic has been unabashed in suggesting that Grenell’s sexual orientation has played a role in the holdup. He’s tweeted, “the left finds anti-gay bigotry literally everywhere except when Democrats are blocking the nomination of an eminently qualified gay man.”

For Barron, who organized LGBT for Trump and a founder of GOProud, he sees the GOP’s “softening” on marriage equality as a reaction to more fundamentally threatening social forces outside of the party. “Many social conservatives realize the real culture war isn’t about gay marriage, it’s about defeating radicalized Islam that is dedicated to destroying western civilization.”

It’s no secret that a lot of the raw partisanship in U.S., and even across Europe, is rooted in this idea that a “culture war” exists between the left and right; and Barron isn’t alone in claiming the fault lines on gay rights have changed.

For example, when lifelong gay Democrat Chadwick Moore came out as a conservative last year and has since been outspoken in support of Grenell, the fallout was quick and stinging. The right was welcoming, while his liberal Williamsburg neighbors were “ugly, lock step, incurious and mean-spirited.”  

Other conservatives have shared this experience. Richard Armande Mills, a millennial activist, writer, and vlogger, explained, “I’ve been told that I am ‘self-loathing’ for not subscribing to groupthink and find it particularly unfair considering more and more Republicans — including the president himself — have become increasingly tolerant of my community.” For him, Grenell proves that “as supporters of our party evolve, anti-gay sentiment is truly starting to become an outdated viewpoint.”

The notion that the GOP is past its resistance to same-sex marriage and is softening on LGBT issues is, of course, not universal. Since the 2015 Ogberfell decision, Christian conservatives have recalibrated towards protecting the individual religious liberties of those personally opposed, as in the recent gay wedding cake debate. While to some from the left, “strategically dangling a few gay people” is merely the “pink-washing of white nationalism.”

Yet perhaps the best way to test the depth and sincerity of the GOP’s move, outside of polling, is to gauge the most vocal right-wing activists on Twitter — the lingua franca of the #MAGA movement. This loosely defined group, on whom the left levels their harshest attacks, has actually become some of the loudest cheerleaders of Ric Grenell’s confirmation outside of the administration.

Mike Cernovich, the proclaimed “king of the MAGA faction of the Internet” by Vanity Fair, has been a stalwart Grenell backer, and he’s joined by dozens of Twitter personalities equally reviled by the left and media, including: Jack Posobiec; Arthur Schwartz; Kambree Kawahine Koa; and CRTV’s Nick Short. All alluded to Grenell’s sexual orientation in their comments.

Just years ago, a scandal that outed a GOP elected official as gay could be career ending. Now, Ric Grenell and the obstruction of his nomination has seemingly united all levels of the party in cheering for an eminently qualified gay nominee. Whether he is confirmed or not, his fight has changed the perception on what was once considered conservative doctrine and making it easier for gays to come out… as Republicans.

Joseph Borelli is the minority whip of the New York City Council, Republican commentator, professor and Lindsay Fellow at the City University of New York's Institute for State and Local Governance. He has also been published in the NY Daily News and Washington Times and appears on Fox News, Fox Business, CNN and HLN. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC