What the rise of queer Republicans tells us about America

GRAND JUNCTION, CO – OCTOBER 18: Supporters hold up a gay pride flag for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on October 18, 2016 in Grand Junction Colorado. Trump is on his way to Las Vegas for the third and final presidential debate against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Every Pride Month, the rainbow flags come out, parades march on, and, if it’s an election year, Democratic candidates make their appeal to a growing part of the electorate: LGBTQ voters.

But it’s easy to forget how modern of a development this is. That LGBTQ voters and the Democratic Party would become so closely intertwined was never a given — and as far back as the 1950s, when LGBTQ Americans were first beginning to organize, it wasn’t at all clear which political party was a natural home.

After all, starting in the 1940s and into the 1960s, politicians of both parties enabled and empowered the so-called Lavender Scare — part of a wave of anti-Communist sentiment to drive out LGBTQ people from working in the federal government.

Yes, the Reagan era saw the creation of the religious right and union of social conservatives with the GOP. But then it was a Democratic president who enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to prohibit LGBTQ servicemembers from being out in the military in the 1990s — Bill Clinton. It was also Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage in heterosexual terms and banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It would remain the law of the land until the Supreme Court recognized the right to marriage for same-sex couples in 2015.

Political realities have changed rapidly since. The Republican Party has generally oscillated between outright aggression and disgruntled passivity toward the LGBTQ community. But the Democratic Party has moved rapidly in the last two decades from mere tolerance to active advocacy and inclusion.

But the more distant past provides important context: It explains why gay and queer people exist in both parties and across the political spectrum today, how conservative and Republican LGBT people played influential roles both in efforts to gain protections and in shaping the modern Republican Party, and why this subset of the LGBTQ community is often overlooked.

And this part of the electorate won’t be going anywhere, Neil J. Young, a writer and historian who recently assembled a definitive history of the gay right, told me.

“If anything, the proliferation of more people who identify as LGBTQ will mean a growth of people who identify as gay Republicans, because there will probably be a lot more people who are comfortable to be out and to be recognized as gay Republicans in a way that they weren’t in the past,” Young, the author of Coming Out Republican: A History of the Gay Right, told me.

So while the mainstream picture of LGBTQ Americans is one of progressive and liberal activism, the overlooked history of conservative and right-wing queer organizing provides additional color of the past and clues for what a future America might look like: As LGBTQ Americans grow in numbers and change the nation, the country — and our politics — may be changing the community too.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

Christian Paz

As you write, LGBTQ conservatives and Republicans have always existed. But is there a common misconception that came up while working on this book, or that you have heard since?

Neil J. Young

The biggest misconception is that there aren’t that many of them. The overwhelming idea is that all LGBTQ people are Democrats, or have politics that align them with the left. Both contemporary data shows us — and also this history I’ve delved into — this is a much bigger phenomenon than even I anticipated, and certainly [than] the average person, and even the media, talks about.

It’s one thing to talk about how many LGBTQ people vote for a Republican candidate in any election — and again, those numbers are higher than most people think — but it’s another to think about how conservatism and right-of-center politics incorporates a much larger swath of LGBTQ people than people appreciate.

Christian Paz

You focus your book on specific activists and players within Republican politics going back to the 1950s, and they serve as stand-ins for their greater community. Is there a throughline that ties them all together? What does gay or queer conservative ideology look like compared to how straight conservatives or Republicans think?

Neil J. Young

Ideologically, there are a couple of things that really connect most of these actors across time and at any given moment. Typically there’s what they would describe as some sort of politics of fiscal conservatism: that means lower taxes, less government regulation, constrained federal power to regulate business.

There’s also generally been an emphasis on the military and national security politics — that’s manifested in different ways in different historical eras.

And the last thing is a politics and discourse of individual rights. That varies a lot over time, because political language can shift across decades, but this is a sense of individualism that is part of a broader conservative politics [and] it’s a consistent characteristic of the LGBTQ Right.

Beyond ideology, the big consistency is that this is mostly a story of white gay men, especially at the activist level that my book is focusing on.

Christian Paz

Connected to that, I find it really interesting how LGBTQ identity is both a discrete part of individual identity and also interconnected with education, class, gender, and race. I’m wondering — for these gay white men, does LGBTQ identity not play a central factor in how they think of themselves or their politics? Do they prioritize class, for example, in their concern for fiscal conservatism? Does that make them different from how a progressive or left-leaning LGBTQ person might be able to think of themselves?

Neil J. Young

This has been a long-running debate within the people and groups I was looking at, especially like the Log Cabin Republicans [the major right-wing national LGBTQ advocacy group]. I even have a chapter that’s titled after an essay in one of the Log Cabin Republicans’ magazines, which was something like “Are You a Gay Republican or a Republican Gay?” It was never resolved. In some ways that debate was about identity: “Am I a gay Republican?” meaning, “I am someone for whom that is a coherent identity, and that’s the identity I am seeking for the party to accept and acknowledge.” And also, does that mean that my work here is to not only increase our visibility, but also advocate for gay rights within the GOP?

Or “Am I a Republican gay?” meaning, as they would often say, a Republican who happens to be gay. Those folks are really aligned with what you ask — they really don’t have any sort of patience or interest in identity politics, and, actually, they think of themselves as conservatives, as “I don’t engage in identity politics at all.” 

But all of this, I think, is predicated on almost all of these folks being white, gay men, and so their whiteness and maleness are obviously powerful markers of identity that allow them to operate within the Republican Party in a lot of ways.

And also those are things that by the nature of how American society is set up that they get to sort of negate that they are engaged with or benefitting from any sort of identity politics.

Christian Paz

So they get to say something like “I’m an American first.”

Neil J. Young

Yeah for a lot of these folks, they didn’t believe this part of their identity was something that needed to be a big deal. That wasn’t their primary identity in the world. They would say, “I’m an American first. I’m a conservative first. I’m a Christian who just happens to be gay.” And that’s ongoing.

Christian Paz

Does that change as coming out becomes more acceptable in society? There’s some academic research to suggest that coming out, be it a political act in and of itself or not, can be key to radicalizing or reforming someone’s political ideology.

Neil J. Young

It really matters what time period we’re talking about. My opening chapters are about closeted gay men who were important in the homophile movement [the earliest activism demanding equality regardless of sexual orientation] or the conservative movement. Then you have folks in the 1970s who come out and essentially found the first chapters of what becomes the Log Cabin Republicans. … Their work is tied to their politics, but it’s tied to the sense that they are already the best representatives of the Republican Party’s libertarian traditions of “leave us alone, stay out of our bedroom, stay out of our wallets, don’t police us.” That coming out is an extension of their politics, as opposed to a moment that politicizes them. It’s a moment which makes them more politically active. Those are two different things.

But in the ’90s and after, you have guys who are coming out in a completely different context, one of increasing public acceptance of homosexuality and support for a broad array of gay rights. Those attitudes start to shift within the Republican Party. So in more recent decades, their coming out is almost unpolitical for them. Society has shifted so much, and for these folks, it’s more of a nonpolitical act, and it’s an act that they think should have little political bearing.

Christian Paz

That dynamic actually reminds me of a broader electoral question: I’m wondering if as society changes, as issue priorities change for LGBTQ people, as the coming out experience becomes less tense, does that lead to an LGBTQ community that centers that part of their identity less? And if so, am I just describing gay Republicans?

Neil J. Young

Absolutely, and that manifests itself in a few ways. Historically these folks would be more in line with what some of the LGBTQ polls for 2024 show: that these folks have always ranked other things as their political priorities. It was almost always the economy first, national security and military issues were preeminent, and lower down was any sort of gay rights. And even their notions of gay rights were very constrained compared to what activists on the left in any given moment were envisioning. If they believed in gay rights at all.

Christian Paz

Tell me more about that. A cleavage over gay rights, among the Gay Right?

Neil J. Young

It was an ongoing conversation: For the folks who said yes, it typically meant, we just want the government to get rid of discriminatory language or regulations. They were for anti-discrimination that made sexuality a protected category. There was a big debate over gay marriage, and whether to support that. They generally came around to that. But these were always low-ranking priorities to other things. That is in keeping with them being a primarily white, professional, entrepreneurial, male group.

And you’re seeing a lot of this happening on the right today. There is a real separation of LGBTQ identity. Log Cabin Republicans continues to call itself an LGBT Republican organization, but they don’t use the “Q,” and there’s been a lot of internal fighting about whether to get rid of the “T,” and just be LGB.

When [LGBT Republicans] talk about themselves individually, when I interviewed them, they had to correct me, they would say, “I’m gay. I’m not LGBTQ. I’m not queer.” They would say “we’re gay, we’re lesbian, we’re bisexual.” They really argue that LGBTQ has become a political identity rather than a sexual identity.

Christian Paz

You say some of those cleavages are old, but it feels like a lot of this is amplified or worsened by social media and our modern right-wing politics. Is that fair?

Neil J. Young

We’re seeing it ramp up, and depending on where you look, yes, it is more inflamed, especially on social media. You can go down an ugly rabbit hole if you look at #LGBnotT or #LGBnotQueer. Log Cabin Republicans isn’t engaging that part of internet culture right now, but you see it on Fox News and other media of gay men decrying the trans movement or attacking what they call “radical gender ideology.”

I think we’re in the opening stage of that, of more bigoted and impassioned turns, and it’s not temporary. It’s predicated on the calculation that gay rights are secure, meaning that we have marriage, for the most part [have] employment protection, and even some would say trans rights — that the Supreme Court has established some basic trans rights for adults, and that’s sort of case closed. But in general, it’s predicated on large public acceptance, including on the right, of gay persons. And there is a calculation that this is a strategy that is going to work to keep them in the fold of conservatism and conservative media.

I ask some of these contemporary actors, “Do you have any concerns about where that might be headed down the line?” And they don’t at all. Time will tell. But to the extent that these gay Republican activists have facilitated a lot of this anti-LGBTQ turn is noteworthy.

Christian Paz

But how will that gel with what feels is like the constant growth of younger generations into political society, these younger LGBTQ Americans who seem more progressive and feel comfortable coming out. Wouldn’t that eventual turnover lead to some kind of end of this conservative queer identity? Will there be gay/LGBT/LGBTQ/LGB conservatives and Republicans 15 years from now?

Neil J. Young

If anything, it felt like there was a dip during the early Trump years at first. You look at Trump’s results with LGBTQ voters and it’s 14 percent, tied for the lowest recorded vote in 1992. [In 2020] he grew that vote. I think that there’s some indication that he wants to build on that. But whatever happens with Trump, this is not a movement that’s diminishing. If anything, the proliferation of more people who identify as LGBTQ actually will mean a growth of people who identify as gay Republicans because there will probably be a lot more people who are comfortable to be out and recognized as gay Republicans in a way that they weren’t in the past.

But also, this proliferation of identity and the sort of enhancement of identity politics also works to sort of elevate these anti-identity arguments that resonate with certain, again, white, gay men. There’s lots of ways in which we can imagine gay Republicans and LGBTQ Republicans growing in the years ahead, as this general LGBTQ demographic expands.

Christian Paz

As you say that, the thing that I keep going back to is this meme, this question, of “how can you be a gay Republican? How can you be part of the Leopards Eating Faces Party and then get shocked when the leopards eat your face?” And I guess what I mean is, if you are speaking to a liberal American, how do you justify that this is a movement to be thinking about, to be worried about, or take seriously?

Neil J. Young

This is a phenomenon that’s much bigger than people have ever really known. And gay Republicans and gay conservatives have been really fundamental to some of the most important rights that we have, especially marriage and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And also, gay Republicans and gay conservatives, even if they’ve been marginalized by the party and demonized by the party, they’ve actually also been fundamental to the development of modern conservatism and the Republican Party that we have today. 

And also I would say that this is not just about the Republicans. The larger history I engage with is to show that none of these historical developments, none of these breakthroughs and real legislative accomplishments are secure. Everything is up for grabs. Everything can be overturned. And this is really urgent. 

So it’s important to understand that gay Republicans have and gay conservatives have been central actors in the development of many of the things that we think of as progressive change, and they’ve also accommodated a party that is seeking to overturn those very things. We should all be vigilant, whatever our politics are, about how much of this progress is under threat, and that nothing in history is a given.

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