To the Republican Parents of My Gay Best Friend: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Vote for Trump

SLATE | Nov. 4, 2016 

By Nathaniel Frank

Four years ago, I wrote you an open letter, arguing that, while I could appreciate your long loyalty to the Republican Party, voting for Mitt Romney meant voting against the interests of your gay son, my best friend since college. This year, the stakes for our nation and the world are even higher than they were then, and Donald Trump’s record on LGBTQ equality can seem insignificant considering his record—and character—when it comes to so many other critical issues.

To me, though, and to your son, it’s anything but insignificant. That’s not only because Trump’s positions on LGBTQ rights are far worse than they may seem. It’s also because one of the things I’ve grasped in newly visceral ways in the wake of our movement’s national marriage equality win is just how intertwined all our interests are, just how true it is that a nation and its leaders must be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable. That means the needs, fortunes, aspirations, and safety of Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, women, disabled people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and everybody else—including you—rise and fall together. It would be both selfish and foolish for me to think that a president with some level of professed sympathy for LGBTQ people but unabashed contempt for all these other Americans would somehow be good for me or our country.

It’s small comfort to me, and I’d hope to you, that Trump has waved the rainbow flag and voiced amorphous support for the LGTBQ community—while slighting and reportedly abusing members of so many of these other groups. Indeed, it is personally insulting to me as a financially comfortable white gay man, who has recently enjoyed unfathomable advances in rights and privileges, to hear this classic divide-and-conquer demagogue utter mollifying niceties about my people while making it crystal clear that he will put so many marginalized people at risk—and seek my vote while doing so.

So I am writing you now to ask you once again to reconsider your possible vote for Trump on Nov. 8.

Let me start this appeal by making sure you’re aware of what Trump’s actual positions are on the major issues of importance to folks like me and my husband—and to your son and his partner. While the GOP candidate has claimed he is supportive of LGBTQ rights, he in fact opposes our right to marry, something the Supreme Court, the Democratic Party, and a solid majority of the American public now consider a fundamental right that can fairly be regarded as a litmus test for LGBTQ support. Discussing the court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that made marriage equality legal nationwide, Trump told Fox News, “I disagree with the court,” and he has vowed to appoint new justices “very much in the mold of Justice Scalia.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, Scalia spent a lifetime building an anti-LGBTQ legacy that will make his name forever synonymous with virulent homophobia and with outright contempt for LGBTQ people. Yet Trump went out of his way to call Scalia a “beloved great Catholic thinker and jurist” in reiterating his intention to appoint justices like him to the court. And it’s not just a constitutional reading on marriage equality that Trump was criticizing. He has repeatedly made clear that he personally opposes same-sex marriage as policy, telling Bill O’Reilly in 2011, “I’m against it,” and saying last year that he supported “traditional marriage.”

Perhaps you heard Trump initially support the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. Could he be a moderate on such issues? The answer is no. Recognizing the need to appease the Republican base, Trump quickly hedged on discrimination law and then reversed himself entirely, coming out solidly against protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination: By July, Trump had cast his lot with HB2, the venomous North Carolina law that requires people to use the bathroom that aligns with their birth certificate and killed local laws that would have protected LGBTQ people from discrimination. “I’m with the state on things like this,” he said.

Trump then dug in on discrimination, explicitly supporting a federal bill that would allow anyone with religious or even moral objections to homosexuality to discriminate against LGBTQ people, irrespective of federal laws or policies meant to ensure equal treatment. Can you imagine letting people who object to building safety codes because of some extreme belief in, for example, free market principles simply opt out of obeying the law? This is no different.

Trump’s fealty to religious extremism is part of a larger effort to attract social conservatives by showing he’ll gladly sell out LGBTQ people to achieve power. To that end, in September he announced the creation of a “Catholic Advisory Group.” Topping the list of 34 names is Rick Santorum who, like Scalia, has made his name interchangeable with rank anti-LGBTQ moralizing.

Santorum is hardly the only rabid homophobe Trump is courting during this election. He has also made overtures to some religious conservative groups, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, whose unconscionable efforts to whip up homophobia in global spots that are already dangerous for LGBTQ people, such as Russia, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia and Africa, can only be called disgusting. After all, it’s one thing to claim adherence to traditional Christian values, but quite another to make a career out of fanning the flames of revulsion against vulnerable minorities in countries where such sentiment can and does result in violence and even torture.

Yet such outfits are a key part of Trump’s coalition, those he gleefully represents. Is it any wonder that his rallies are packed with supporters hurling epithets such as “queer” and “faggot” at journalists—to say nothing of the rampant anti-Semitism also infecting his crowds?

In one of the biggest decisions Trump has had to make as the GOP nominee, the candidate chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence is handsome and soft-spoken and may seem like a sage choice given the contrast he provides to Trump’s own norm-crushing candidacy and impulsive, defensive character. Don’t be fooled. My Slate colleague Mark Stern has called the Indiana governor “one of American politics’ most militant culture warriors” for a reason.

Pence came to national attention last year for championing one of the most far-reaching anti-LGBTQ laws in the country. It allowed not just religious groups but businesses and individuals to discriminate against LGBTQ people simply by claiming that they are exercising their religious freedom. The national backlash against the law was swift and searing and prompted a modest revision of the statute, but Pence remained a nationally known figure—beloved by social conservatives and condemned by progressives—in large part because of his role in passing the anti-LGBTQ law.

This in itself makes the vice-presidential pick a giant slap in the face to the LGBTQ community, one that personally stings those of us demoralized by watching a concerted attack on the dignity of our relationships at the very moment we were facing a national victory with the freedom to marry. But it turns out that Pence has a heinous record on LGBTQ equality, one that shows him to be far more radical than his modest demeanor may suggest.

Pence is so opposed to marriage equality that in 2013 he signed a law making it a felony in Indiana for a same-sex couple even to apply for a marriage license. As a congressman, he called the 2009 hate crimes law, which increased penalties for bias attacks, part of a “radical social agenda” and stridently opposed letting gay and lesbian troops serve their country, saying it would “mainstream homosexuality” and harm military readiness (contrary to all the evidence) in “an effort to advance some liberal domestic social agenda.” When he first ran for Congress in 2000, he proposed diverting federal funds from HIV treatment to instead “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” an apparent reference to the discredited and abusive practice of conversion therapy.

So there you have the Trump-Pence ticket when it comes to LGBTQ rights. I recognize, of course, that all kinds of considerations factor into our voting decisions. I myself am not a single-issue voter, and my choice would be Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump irrespective of the GOP nominee’s record on LGBTQ rights. I believe Trump to be an utterly amoral, narcissistic conman with such an obvious lack of concern for the common good and with such a transparent ignorance of public policy that it truly bewilders me that smart people whom I respect would not see through his chicanery and anti-democratic tendencies. I also believe that his values and character are an affront to basic decency, something made clear by his positions and rhetoric on women and minorities of all stripes.

I get that many people want someone to shake up Washington and ensure that our economy and security are as strong as possible. But as much as I hear people cite these reasons for backing Trump, absolutely nothing he has said or done, and nothing his supporters can explain to me, indicates that Trump has a viable plan to achieve these goals. You are smart, you are decent, and you have a fine grasp of history. Do you really believe that Trump is what America needs? Can you explain, even to yourself, how you think he’ll solve our problems? Can you really imagine someone who has been accused not only of multiple sexual assaults but of stiffing literally hundreds of his workers and contractors and even members of his own presidential campaign and who reportedly has “no attention span,” will be the person who can get powerful, capable people in a room and mold them into an effective team of problem-solvers? Electing a strongman in hopes of achieving some generalized notion of change is not a plan to “make America great again.” It’s a plan to run it into the ground.

I also get that Hillary is a flawed candidate, whom many don’t like or trust. I don’t have space to enumerate here why I support her so strongly, but I will say this: Despite evidence of having the same will to power as any successful male politician (which, in our world, apparently makes her someone who cares only about herself), Hillary’s entire life of public service, its scandals notwithstanding, have shown me that she shares my values of empathy, equality, opportunity, and respect—and can be trusted to fight for them. That, in a nutshell, is enough for me.

Solidarity is not a new idea. Some have noted that there’s even an element of selfishness in the notion that people might support a position because they identify it with their own interest or that of their loved ones, rather than simply because it’s right. But now is no time to get philosophical. I’m happy to do whatever I can to ensure our country’s stability and prosperity and that of the people I care most about. And I’m counting on empathy—mine, yours, and that of millions of others—to enlarge the sphere of enlightened self-interest in ways that do the greatest good for the greatest number.

I’m guessing you feel similarly about all this. And I know for a fact just how much your son’s well-being matters to you. This is no mere abstraction. Remember when you called me up years ago and said that nothing was more important to you than your son’s happiness, and you wanted me to assure you that, as his best friend, I’d watch out for that? That really moved me. And that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s one reason why, even if you’re open to a Trump presidency for other reasons, I trust that you’ll take a good, hard look at his real positions on issues that directly affect your son, me, and our partners, as well as all your other gay friends, of whom you’ve always been nothing but supportive.

That support, that genuine concern for our well-being, is simply impossible to reconcile with a Trump vote. If Trump were to win and even remotely pursue the positions he has staked out, your son’s partner of more than 12 years—a gay Muslim immigrant—would be suddenly, drastically imperiled. That’s not a recipe for your son’s happiness—or for anyone’s, besides a faction of reactionary voters who won’t get the America they claim to want even if their candidate wins.

As I’ve said before, you’ve become a second set of parents to me in the quarter-century I have known you. Our reservoir of mutual respect runs deep. I appreciate you considering this appeal, and I know you’ll do what you think is right for you, your family, and our country. The feminists were right: The personal is political. Now more than ever.

Nathaniel Frank, director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School, is writing a book on the history of marriage equality.