|Posted on July 27, 2016 at 8:30 PM|
By Dennis Stone
I've been a political junkie since I was 14 years old. Every four years I watch most of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. And I enjoy myself! And so last week I spent far too much time with Donald Trump. But, despite my distaste for Trump and my disagreement with most Republican thinking, when it was over I felt palpably reminded of the incredible progress the gay community has made over the past twenty years or so. This week I'm watching the Democrats, and that reminder is being reinforced. I think most gay people are glossing over the reality here.
Let's take the Democrats first, since that is so simple. Every time a speaker mentions LGBT rights, and it isn't rare, a huge cheer goes up. It is now almost impossible to be a serious Democratic candidate in most of the country (parts of the south and midwest are lagging a bit) without being a supporter of marriage equality. No one opposing marriage equality would have a chance of being nominated for president. Big deal, you say? Well, remember that President Obama did not support marriage equality until 2012, and he was the first president ever - and first candidate with a reasonable chance of being elected - to do so. Hillary Clinton did not come on board until 2013, and the sainted revolutionary himself, Bernie Sanders, did not support it until 2009. Four short years ago no president and no serious candidate in the history of the country had ever NOT been explicitly opposed to gay marriage.
This is incredible to me. Though not incredible that it didn't happen before. I came of age before the AIDS crisis, and I fully understand the slow evolution society went through. Rather, it's incredible because of how fast our world has recently changed. Four short years ago. I can't get that out of my head. And now today it's all just taken for granted. In an odd way I suppose it's a good sign that it is taken for granted, though I wish more people would recognize and appreciate it.
Now on to the Republicans. What actually transpired at the convention doesn't sound like that much. First, PayPal co-founder (and the first outside investor in Facebook) Peter Thiel gave a speech, in which he said: "I am proud to be gay, proud to be a Republican, but most of all I am proud to be an American." Ho hum, right? However, that's the first time that a speaker at the Republican convention has ever said he was gay. The only previous known gay person to address the convention was Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe in 2000, and he made no mention of his sexuality. Nonetheless, the Texas delegation was so upset that he was even speaking that they removed their cowboy hats and prayed while he spoke. In contrast, when Thiel said he was proud to be gay the crowd cheered him. (Though three delegations were reported to have watched in silence, without any cheers or applause.) In a moment I'll explain why Thiel's speech is so much more momentous than it seems.
And then in his acceptance speech Trump said this, after referring to the "49 wonderful Americans" killed in Orlando: "As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology, believe me." The crowd of die-hard Republicans, who a few years ago thought queer people were the spawn of the devil, mostly cheered. Trump seemed surprised, and then said: "I have to say as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you."
Some observers said he was just cynically trolling for votes. Others remarked how "LGBTQ" was said as if it were a foreign word. Some said his emphasis was more on the "hateful foreign ideology" than on support for queer people. Others pointed out that the official party platform is overtly anti-gay. I don't give a shit if any of that is true (and the last thing I mentioned certainly is). Social evolution is often slow, and for Republicans it can be glacially slow. And so when an openly gay man gives a speech to cheers at the Republican convention, and the nominee of the party can pledge respect and protection to the LGBTQ community, even if we distrust the man, it does represent a big step in that social evolution. The party platform doesn't matter to me. It was crafted by the far right wing of the party, and has no practical influence on anything, least of all Trump, who would completely ignore it.
Here is why Peter Thiel's speech and Trump's comments are so important. As I noted previously, we have the Democratic party "wrapped up." Everyone supports us. A majority of moderates and independents support gay rights as well. So that leaves the roughly third of the country that is in the conservative/Republican camp. And now we're gradually winning them over as well. A recent Pew Research poll showed about a third of Republicans support marriage equality. And over 60% of millennial Republicans support it. Unfortunately, the ultra conservatives of the Tea Party and the evangelical right wing are able to dominate Republican politics in the red areas of the country, and so common sense initiatives like the Equality Act don't currently have much chance. And that helps to camouflage the remarkable social evolution that has occurred and is continuing to occur.
The bottom line is that we really have won the war. Even if Michelangelo Signorile and others would be aghast at such a declaration. There are many battles left to win, and we are still in a long process to full legal equality. But I am getting tired of queer people continuing to talk and act as if we are "surrounded by hate," as so many gay spokespeople are saying.
We should be able to push for full equality in every respect, while at the same time recognizing and appreciating how far we've come. When I was born we were officially classed as mentally ill, and I lived through the AIDS crisis, with the hysteria, hatred and discrimination. I refuse to be angry and joyless because we still have a road to travel. I am happy - ecstatic, in fact - at how different is the world in which I live compared to the world into which I was born. The Republican and Democratic conventions have reminded me of that.