It would be easy to forget that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender matters. As broadcasters, politicians and the public alike gear up for this November’s presidential elections, it seems that the ever-present problem of “LGBT issues” has largely disappeared from debates.
Last week, both Republicans and Democrats took to stages to offer their policies, their plans and their attacks on opponents. In neither instance were LGBT Americans referenced. There were no lengthy debates about same-sex marriage, no discussions about transgender people using the restroom of their choice, no veiled remarks to the military’s acceptance of gays. It was a far cry not only from earlier debates, but from elections past.
Just a few months ago, Republican candidates were decrying same-sex marriage and trans bathroom policies. In Fox News’ August debate, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and then-candidate Bobby Jindal all confirmed their support for “religious liberty” — allowing someone to discriminate against a gay person based on their religious beliefs. Rick Santorum urged Republicans not to give up the fight against same-sex marriage, while Gov. John Kasich delivered a more measured response, telling viewers that he had attended a same-sex wedding. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, chose to attack the possibility of transgender servicemembers serving openly in the military. “The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things,” the notoriously homophobic Fox News contributor railed.
But that was nothing compared to the previous election cycle. In a 2011 Fox News primary debate, Rick Santorum was asked a question by Stephen Hill, a gay soldier then serving in Iraq, who stated that prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he’d had to “lie about who [he] was” in order to serve. Hill wanted to know whether the military would recognize his marriage, but Santorum wasn’t interested in addressing that concern.
“I would say any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military,” Santorum said.
“What would you do with soldiers like Stephen Hill?” moderator Megyn Kelly pressed.
“What we are doing is playing social experimentation with our military right now. That’s tragic. I would just say that going forward we would reinstitute [DADT] if Rick Santorum was president,” Santorum responded.
But of greater concern was the reaction by the audience. After Hill’s pre-taped question was played to the candidates, Fox News cut back to the debate to the sound of some audience members booing. For conservative Republicans, not even Hill’s status as an active servicemember was enough to respect him — his sexuality trumped everything.
Reach back to 2008 and same-sex marriage was an even hotter political topic. As California prepared to vote on Proposition 8 — which would ultimately succeed in halting same-sex marriage — gays weren’t far from the presidential candidates’ minds. During a vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin reiterated that she and John McCain did not support marriage equality, and Joe Biden did the same for he and Barack Obama. “No,” Biden responded, when asked if he would support marriage equality. “Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage.” It was a response representative of the political climate, when just 39 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage, according to Pew Research Center.
And as further reminder that same-sex marriage has only recently won national support from the Democratic Party, over a decade ago it dominated a 2004 debate for primary candidates, with John Kerry and John Edwards sparring on the issue. Neither man supported same-sex marriage, instead favoring civil unions, but both took the Republican Party to task for enshrining a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in the party platform for that election. “We have amended the United States Constitution to end slavery, to give women the right to vote — this is clearly nothing but politics,” Edwards said. In 2012, the Republican Party still had “Preserving and Protecting Traditional Marriage” as part of the party platform — some state party organizations also included this in their 2014 party platforms.
Why take this trip down memory lane? Because the relative quiet on LGBT issues during the 2016 debates shouldn’t be put down to an easing of anti-LGBT attitudes from current presidential candidates, nor should it be confused with the diminishment of the importance of LGBT issues in national elections. Indeed, rather than trumpet their homophobia from the pulpits during debates, Republicans are instead choosing other ways to frame their bigotry — chief among them being “religious liberty” or “religious freedom,” buzzwords that the religious right use to discriminate against LGBT people and oppose pro-equality legislation.
In a field of eleven candidates, seven Republicans last week participated in the “Freedom to Believe” conference, a “religious freedom” event. Hosting the religious extravaganza was Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a notoriously homophobic organization, with Perkins himself previously equating gay people with drug addicts, blasting President Obama’s LGBT nondiscrimination executive order in 2014 as giving “special treatment to homosexuals, transgenders, and cross-dressers in the workplace,” and continuing to advocate for removing the right of gay people to marry. His co-host, Rick Scarborough, of the Christian organization Vision America, previously declared he was prepared to be set on fire in the fight against same-sex marriage, called AIDS “a homosexual disease,” and also called it “God’s judgement on a sinful generation.”
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum shared their thoughts on religious liberty during the four hour event. In recorded statements, each laid out their plans in hope of winning endorsements from the religious right — a segment of the Republican electorate no candidate can win a primary without. Bush promised to be a “strong advocate of religious liberty,” Carson called “secular progressivism” the greatest threat to religious freedom, while Huckabee promised to ignore the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. Cruz promised to end “the persecution of religious liberty” should he be elected, while Rubio said he would support those called “bigots and haters” for opposing same-sex marriage. “Freedom to Believe” was a reminder that, despite their absence from recent debates, LGBT issues are still very much in play this election cycle.
Cruz, who is currently celebrating an endorsement from the staunchly right-wing and anti-gay Eagle Forum, is perhaps the best example of this. Recent debates have seen Cruz trying to bolster his appeal to voters by touting his foreign policy plans and combatting Donald Trump’s position at the top of polls. For voters, those debates would offer no indication of the extent of Cruz’s bigotry — but there’s little doubt that the candidate is as anti-gay as they come. He has consistently fought against equality. He believes that being gay is a choice, slammed his opponent in the 2012 race for his senatorial seat for supporting gay pride parades, and if elected would work to overrule the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling. He told NPR last year that same-sex marriage would be “front and center” in his 2016 campaign.
But then a curious thing happened. According to Politico, Cruz attended a fundraiser in Manhattan in December where the city’s more liberal Republicans quizzed him on his attitudes towards same-sex marriage. Faced with a less extreme crowd than at his rallies — and the prospect of several fat cheques to bolster his campaign efforts — his tone shifted.
“Would you say it’s like a top-three priority for you — fighting gay marriage?” a potential donor asked.
“No, Cruz responded. “I would say defending the Constitution is a top priority…. People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio…. That’s why we have 50 states — to allow a diversity of views. And so that is a core commitment.”
His shift in tone is remarkable, especially when we fast forward one month to a rally in Iowa. There, Cruz told an evangelical crowd that the Supreme Court’s ruling was “fundamentally illegitimate,” “lawless,” and “will not stand,” according to the Chicago Sun Times. Cruz is playing a skillful game, appealing to his conservative, religious core, while also trying to woo more moderate Republicans swayed by his policies — but there’s little doubt as to where his true allegiance lies.
On stage, Cruz, like Marco Rubio, is a slick conservative, setting forth a vision of a new Republican presidency, one that downplays the loud extremism of Trump’s campaign promises in favor of right-wing, religiously-flavored principles. But it’s once the cameras are off that LGBT voters need to remember just how much is at stake in 2016. Where previously we were a national spectacle, our rights debated for all to see, now we’re a quiet conversation. As debates shift to national security, the economy, the battle between left and right, bashing gay marriage and trans rights is something reserved for firing up the Republican base at rallies, campaign stops and choice appearances.
Whereas it’s easy to assume “Dems good, Republicans bad,” the nuances are much greater — and even less apparent given the recent lack of public bashing that used to occur on debate stages. As GOP debates shift to immigration and fighting ISIS, voters — both LGBT and otherwise — need to be aware of the quieter nature of hatred on display in 2016. As Trump shouts about building walls, the more insidious, anti-gay policies of his opponents are left out of the limelight. When we can’t see on a debate stage what a candidate really thinks, we’re left with one problem: an anti-LGBT revolution in November that no viewer saw coming.
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