It’s a strange time to be a gay Republican.
On one hand, LGBT Republican activists say they are feeling overwhelmingly optimistic and positive. The party has never been more tolerant of them, and with last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, gay rights have reached new levels of both cultural and legislative acceptance. That’s why for many of them, the standard for evaluating candidates in 2016 is simply “do no harm.”
“It’s a low threshold, but boy, there are some Republicans who are having a hard time getting there,” Gregory T. Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, a network of more than 30,000 LGBT Republicans and allies, told TIME.
Which brings us to the other hand, where LGBT Republicans face discouraging setbacks and party leaders who still bash them to pander to the religious base.
On Wednesday, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled assembly approved a bill preventing the passage of anti-discrimination laws on the local level. It’s just the latest addition to the growing canon of religious freedom bills in the country that members of the LGBT community say are guises for discrimination, and “bathroom bills” that would force people to use the bathrooms for their sex assigned at birth.
Many Log Cabin members also expressed deep frustration at the fact that same sex marriage still haunts the party.
“The world that we live in is one in which gay marriage exists,” said Sarah Longwell, vice chair of Log Cabin who has been married to a woman since 2013. “Those that are trying to come and undo it are doing themselves a disservice. And they’re doing the Republican Party a disservice, because you’re going to lose people like me.”
Mimi Planas, president of Log Cabin’s Miami chapter, said she bumped into Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at a basketball game after her 2014 marriage to another woman, and that he congratulated her on the nuptials. So she was upset when Rubio then spoke out against marriage equality during his run for president. “Why even bring it up?” Planas said. “It’s done. It’s a done deal.”
Besides Rubio, who suspended his campaign in March, many LGBT Republicans expressed trepidation about Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has run a campaign geared towards the social conservatives and evangelicals. He has said he would seek justices to undo the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. Angelo said that Log Cabin members haven’t coalesced behind one candidate, although most interviewed for this article felt that Ohio Governor John Kasich is the best remaining candidate for the LGBT community.
Frontrunner Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a bit of a cipher on these issues. There are indications from his pre-campaign life that he is a supporter of gay rights; for example, he has attended a gay wedding and called for amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. But he’s tacked to the right during his run, now saying he doesn’t support gay marriage and would appoint judges who would overturn the Supreme Court’s marriage decision.
Angelo thinks that despite this, Trump would be supportive of gay rights as president. “Putting everything else aside, Donald Trump is one of the best, if not the best pro-gay Republican to ever run for the presidency,” he said, adding, “But in many respects, putting everything else aside with Donald Trump is a Herculean, if not impossible task.”
Deborah Drew, secretary of Log Cabin’s Massachusetts chapter and a transgender woman, is more suspicious of how Trump would act towards her as president. “He runs a lot on making fun of or subjugating other people, so I don’t expect him to be very supportive of the LGBT community,” she said.
With the “bathroom bills” popping up in Republican-controlled states from Georgia to Florida to South Dakota, many feel that fighting for transgender rights is the next frontier for LGBT Republicans.
“As a transgender community, we need to continue to move forward and say we need to take away the laws that subjugate us and create an environment where we can all live together,” Drew said. “We definitely have to keep pushing forward… Because of the myths and falsehoods that have been perpetrated, the transgender community is an easy target.”
And for all of these struggles, LGBT Republicans must also contend with the fact that their party has anti-gay language codified in its official platform. (For example: “It has been proven by both experience and endless social science studies that traditional marriage is best for children.”) But these Republicans say they remain in the party because they aren’t single-issue voters. They want conservative economic policies, for example, or a strong national defense.
“I can identify with say, 95% of the Republican Platform,” explained Planas. “There might be 5% I may not agree on, but with the Democratic Party, I don’t agree on 90% of it.”
Overall, people feel that it’s an encouraging time to be a gay member of the GOP, and that never before has the party been so welcoming of LGBT members. This year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Log Cabin was allowed for the first time to be a fully visible, participating sponsor of the event. Angelo called it a “historic milestone” for the group, and that CPAC, which many consider to be the premiere conservative gathering in the country, “had traditionally excluded Log Cabin Republicans, or at the very best prevented our participating in a fully realized capacity.”
“The level of acceptance that Log Cabin Republicans have grows by the hour,” Angelo said.
And although some party leaders still publicly speak out against LGBT rights, whether it be Cruz or the North Carolina assembly, most people interviewed for this article said their day-to-day experiences working with Republicans have been nothing but positive. In fact, many said they have received greater acceptance from the Republican Party than from the LGBT community.
“The most discrimination I got was not from the Republican Party, but from the gay Democrats,” said Robert Kabel, the first openly gay chair of a state-level Republican Committee and current National Committeeman of the District of Columbia Republican Committee. “It was brutal.”
Planas echoed Kabel’s experience, saying she’s been welcomed into Republican circles in Miami but that she’s been spit on, called names and threatened by LGBT Democrats. “For a party that’s supposed to be loving and understanding, they sure are not,” she said.
For the most part, these LGBT Republicans say they’re feeling hopeful and empowered when they look to their future in the party.
“The Republican Party has sort of lost its course, so you have to get up and get involved,” said Drew. “It’s difficult for the people that are on the fence for social topics to discriminate or subjugate you when you’re looking them in the face. If you show up and you look at them, it’s harder for them to say, ‘Oh we’re going to do horrible things to you.’”
“Our goal is to be visibly gay among the Republicans and visibly Republican among the gays,” said Planas. “We want to let them know that we’re here, that we exist.”