If you have ever attended one of former President Donald Trump’s rallies, seen one on TV, or even just watched Fox News regularly, you may have seen people wearing tee shirts that have “Gays for Trump” written on the front. Did you think they were planted by the campaign? Or that any gay, lesbian, or transgender person who supported the current Republican Party was deluded? Or a simpleton?

I’ll be the first to confess that, even as a historian who knows that ideology and identity do not map onto each other in obvious ways, I was stunned when I walked out of a Ben Shapiro keynote at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2018, where the rabble-rousing reactionary journalist had rejected homophobia but embraced hatred of trans people. Then, I saw two women holding a trans flag that declared: We Are Trans and We Are Conservative.

It was incredibly brave. But here’s where I reveal my inner bitch queen. When I went downstairs to the exhibit hall and stumbled over a Log Cabin Republicans table staffed by two skinny, rumpled, nervous white men who were made even more anxious when approached by an obvious lesbian, my first thought was: what sad little queers they are.

Well, shame on me.

Those men had fought for their table at CPAC, a particularly difficult task since high-profile gay conservative influencer and youth organizer Milo Yiannopoulos had been disinvited the previous year for having shared fond memories of oral sex with a priest as an underaged teen.

In fact, Yiannopoulos is an exception to the history of LGBT people in the GOP, and not because he was, and is, so out of the closet—although now he says he’s straight. Instead, queer Republicans have historically been the definition of rectitude and respectability, men and women who often did come out in defense of their rights: to be free of state surveillance, to serve in the armed forces, to marry, and to adopt children.

That’s still true today. And like other Republicans, LGBT conservatives are often businesspeople who believe in individual freedom, family, low taxes, deregulation, God, and a strong national defense. If you go to the Log Cabin Republicans site today, you’ll see a full-throated endorsement of these values, updated for the Trump era.

(You can listen to Charles Moran, a representative of Log Cabin Republicans, endorse Donald Trump on Fox News in 2019. As yet, the group has not made an endorsement for 2024.)

And of course, much of what Log Cabin Republicans argued about Trump was true in 2019. Trump was in favor of same-sex marriage during the 2016 campaign, whereas both Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama before her, were reluctant to challenge their political advisors’ wisdom that it diminished their electability. Listeners may recall that it was President Joe Biden, then Obama’s vice president, who endorsed gay marriage in May 2012 on NBC’s Meet the Press.”

The history of LGBT politics is complicated, to say the very least. And that’s why I invited my fellow historian, journalist, podcaster and friend Neil J. Young on the show to talk about his new book, Coming Out Republican: A History of the Gay Right (University of Chicago Press, 2024). As Neil explains, battling detractors on their left and homophobia to their right, gay Republicans have nevertheless played power politics for over 80 years, sometimes in coalition with liberal groups—and sometimes even founding advocacy organizations like One, Inc. that we think of as liberal in their origins. You’re going to learn things in this episode that I didn’t even know before I read Coming Out Republican.

Show notes

  • Claire begins by asking Neil to discuss the role of conservatives in founding the nation’s first homophile organizations. “Homophile” was a word that embraced the spectrum of pro-lesbian and gay politics in the 1950s and early 1960s. You can read more about this movement in a book edited by a character in Neil’s book: W. Dorr Legg, Homophile Studies in Theory and Practice (Gibb Publications, 1994). A critical study of a women’s homophile organization is Marcia Gallo’s Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (Seal Press, 2006).
  • Neil also credits early gay rights activists who were left wing and Communist. You can read about the most prominent man in that group in Stuart Timmons, The Trouble With Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (Alyson Books, 1990).
  • Claire mentions an earlier episode of “Why Now?” with Bettina Aptheker about homophobia in the Communist Party, Lavender and Red, a conversation about Aptheker’s book “Communists in Closets: Queering the History, 1930s-1990s.”
  • Claire mentions Reed Erickson, a transgender man and heir to a business fortune who was an early funder of One, Inc. You can learn more about Erickson in an episode of Eric Marcus’s podcast, “Making Gay History.”
  • Neil explains that men associated with the so-called New Right were more likely to be closeted, and some were married. Several of these men were associated with William F. Buckley’s projects in New York and Washington. You can read more about this circle of activists in Carl Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (Bloomsbury Press: 2011).
  • Claire mentions the queerness of Washington, D.C. The best source on this is James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt and Co., 2022). Neil also points us to the recent Showtime mini-series, Fellow Travelers. (Claire likes the novel by Thomas Mallon that the series is based on better.)
  • Neil mentions closeted Republican gay activist and Reagan-era insider Terry Dolan, who ultimately died of complications from AIDS in 1987. You can read more about him here.
  • Claire and Neil discuss the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which proposed to ban speech about homosexuality and LGBT people from the classroom in California: voters defeated it in 1978. Neil notes that this is a critical moment for the founding of Log Cabin Republicans.
  • Claire also asks Neil about the importance of Leonard Matlovitch, a conservative and decorated Vietnam veteran, and his lawsuit against the Air Force for discharging him when he came out as gay. You can learn more about Matlovitch at Making Gay History.
  • Claire and Neil discuss Andrew Sullivan’s article on gay marriage in The New Republic, “Here Comes The Groom: A (conservative) case for gay marriage” (August 28, 1989), and his critical role in moving liberals to support this issue.
  • The book about the history of queer parenting that Claire mentions is Daniel Winunwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States Since World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
  • Claire notes the turmoil in the conservative Cheney family over former Representative Liz Cheney (WY-01) repudiating the marriage of her lesbian sister, Mary: you can read more about that here. (Liz Cheney has since admitted she was wrong, and has apologized to her sister.)