On Wednesday, Reuters’ Jonathan Jacob Allen wrote a column titled “The LGBT pick for the GOP nomination: Donald Trump?” Allen pondered whether Trump would “draw support from gay Republicans in the primary,” noting his “comparative sensitivity” to the gay community. Throughout the piece, Allen sounds slightly perplexed, as though the notion of Trump as the GOP’s gay-friendly candidate is somehow bizarre or incongruous. But it strikes me as overwhelmingly obvious that Donald Trump is far and away the most pro-gay Republican candidate in the 2016 race.
Trump has never hidden his support for gay civil rights laws. In 2000, he declared that he supported gay anti-discrimination laws and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He also advocated for “a very strong domestic-partnership law that guarantees gay people the same legal protections and rights as married people.” His book, released that same year, wistfully described his dream of an America “unencumbered by … discrimination against people based on sexual orientation.”
The details of Trump’s gay rights views are even more impressive. Trump didn’t just want states to pass their own anti-discrimination laws: He supported amending the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban sexual orientation discrimination. Like Trump’s other pro-gay positions, this stance was extremely liberal for its time. In fact, it’s strikingly progressive even today: For decades, Democrats have favored passing separate nondiscrimination laws for gays and lesbians, often riddled with exemptions, instead of granting gay Americans the full range of Title VII protections. Only this year has the party rallied around a bold Title VII fix. That Trump took this position in 2000 exemplifies his casual but consistent support for gay rights.
As a candidate, Trump does not seem to have changed his views—even though they fall far to the left of the GOP platform. Trump seemed to dismiss anti-gay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, blithely advising that she should let her clerks handle marriage licenses. He has insisted that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling is “the law of the land”—“you have to go with it,” he advised—and groused that “anybody that’s making that an issue is doing it for political reasons.” Although he professes to oppose same-sex marriage today, he rarely discusses it on the campaign trail. (Notably, Trump did snidely misgender Caitlyn Jenner in one interview; his enlightened views on sexual minorities do not, alas, extend to gender minorities.)
What are we to make of Trump’s evident tolerance for gay people and their civil rights? There is, I think, almost nothing remarkable about it. Trump has spent his adult life in the upper echelon of New York high society, slithering between the ritzy business world and the gilded social scene. He has undoubtedly interacted extensively with gay people and maybe even counts a few as friends. He is well-educated and not very religious. Donald Trump simply has no reason to be homophobic.
Compare his background with that of the other serious contenders. Most either ascended to prominence through the staunchly anti-gay Republican Party (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie) or profess to be guided by a fundamentalist Christian worldview (Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee). It makes perfect sense that all these candidates oppose the gay rights laws that Trump supports. They have long earned political capital by peddling homophobia and have no reason to stop now. But Trump is playing a different game, one that trades explicitly Christian prejudice for a more generalized, rudimentary racism.
Given that strategy, Trump likely sees no reason to lie about his pro-gay inclinations. There is little to gain by reverting to homophobia—unless his opponents begin to bash him for not loathing gays enough, which seems unlikely. And adopting an anti-gay outlook could distract from Trump’s core message of anti-immigrant animus, pulling him into to a dangerous minefield of culture war complexities. Better to stick to the basics—horrific vilification of undocumented immigrants, unconscionable calumny of Muslims—than get sidetracked on an anti-gay tangent. While his opponents rail on about reversing marriage equality and legalizing anti-LGBTQ discrimination, Trump has ignored the issue. And by saying very little about gay people, Donald Trump has accidentally become the Republicans’ most gay-tolerant candidate.