As a candidate for president, one of Donald Trump most notable breaks from conservative orthodoxy was his on-the-record support for LGBT rights. At the Republican National Convention, Trump said he’d “do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens.” That was after Peter Thiel became the first openly gay Republican who was not a member of Congress* to speak at the party’s convention, and after Trump told “the LGBT community” that he’d “fight” for them.
Wednesday’s announcement that Trump would bar transgender people from the armed forces was the latest contradiction of that pledge. It couldn’t have been clearer — after casting himself as a pro-gay rights candidate, Trump’s administration had already rescinded protections for trans students in public schools. After declaring himself a noncombatant in one of the culture wars, President Trump, with strong support from religious conservatives, has joined the battle with aplomb.
So far, that hasn’t lost Trump any support from gay conservatives who argued that he was the gay rights candidate. Today’s decision, they argue, is in the spirit of the pledge Trump made — to protect LGBT people against an existential threat. The details of trans rights were negotiable. Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor who co-hosted a “Gays for Trump” party at the RNC, said he was “delighted” that the president had made a smart and compassionate decision.
“You don’t help mentally ill trans people by sticking them on the front lines,” Yiannopoulos said. “You help them with therapy and drugs — though not, I have to stress, transition surgery. I only wish he’d gone further and banned women from combat units too, since the evidence clearly shows their presence is disastrous for both morale and performance. Baby steps?”
A 2015 study found that mixed-gender combat units did not perform as well as all-male units, but a 2016 RAND study of militaries that had integrated trans people found vanishingly little impact on morale. But the pitch that Trump was a pathbreaking pro-gay candidate didn’t really rely on studies. It was that Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, could be trusted to wage war against Islamic extremism, and thus could fight the global, existential threat to gay people. Domestic policy was a detail.
That was clear in Trump’s convention speech, as the context of his pledge to fight for LGBT people was terrorism. “Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist,” Trump said. “This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBT community. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
That was the message of Yiannopoulos’s RNC party, where right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders was the special guest speaker. And that was what another prominent gay Trump supporter, GOProud co-founder Chris Barron, meant when he called Trump the “most pro-LGBT candidate ever nominated by either party.”
Wednesday morning, after batting back some criticism on Twitter from people who’d found the old tweet, Barron explained that he was referring to “radical Islam” as the threat Trump would protect gay people from.
“President Trump is committed to defeating the forces of radical Islam that seek the global extermination of LGBT people,” Barron said. “I defer to the military leaders to determine what policies around the question of trans service best allow them to win the war on radical anti-LGBT Islamic extremism.”
Other conservative LGBT groups and activists, who had praised Trump, swung hard against the surprise decision. “This smacks of politics, pure and simple,” said Log Cabin Republicans president Gregory Angelo in a statement. “The United States military already includes transgender individuals who protect our freedom day in and day out. Excommunicating transgender soldiers only weakens our readiness; it doesn’t strengthen it.”
Trump’s go-along approach on LGBT issues during the campaign did represent a break from what many voters expected from the party. But the message — that the best thing to do for gay rights was beat radical Islam — was not exactly hidden between the lines.
*This has been corrected to reflect that in 2000, after coming out, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) was the first openly gay Republican to address a convention.