CLEVELAND — For the first time in 16 years, an openly gay speaker took the stage at the Republican National Convention on Thursday.
Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and Facebook and a California delegate supporting Trump, proclaimed his sexual orientation to attendees during prime time remarks.
“Of course, every American has a unique identity,” Thiel said. “I am proud to be gay, I am proud to be a Republican, but most of all I am proud to be an American.”
The audience at the Quicken Loans Arena applauded when he made the declaration. Convention officials in neon-colored hats rallied the crowd in a chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
As he spoke, three other openly gay delegates from California — Charles Moran, Ric Grenell and Juan Hernandez — were positioned in seats in the front row. Thiel was given a prime speaking slot at the convention less than an hour before Donald Trump gave his acceptance speech to claim the Republican presidential nomination.
It was the first time since 2000 that an openly gay speaker addressed a Republican National Convention. At that time, then-Rep. Jim Kolbe spoke to the crowd. Although Kolbe didn’t mention his sexual orientation and instead discussed trade policy, many delegates on the floor turned their backs as he spoke.
Much of Thiel’s speech consisted of promoting a positive climate for business growth as well as attacking Hillary Clinton, but the Trump supporter also referenced LGBT rights.
In the aftermath of delegates at the Republican National Convention ratifying a platform considered the most anti-LGBT in the party’s history, Thiel sought to minimize its impact.
“I don’t agree with every plank in our party’s platform, but fake culture wars distract us from our economic decline,” Thiel said.
Amid national debate on whether transgender people should be able to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity, Thiel was dismissive of the controversy.
“When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union, and we won,” Thiel said. “Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
It’s unclear whether Thiel was being critical of LGBT advocates for seeking to protect transgender people against discrimination in bathroom use or whether he was speaking out against laws barring them from using the restroom consistent with their gender identity.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, interpreted Thiel’s remarks as belittling efforts to ensure transgender people have access to the restrooms consistent with their gender identity and rebuked him.
After the speech, Moran told the Washington Blade Thiel delivered “a great message on economic prosperity and freedom.”
“And the enthusiastic standing ovation he got after his, ‘I am gay, I am Republican, I am an American’ line was a continued reinforcement that the body politic of the GOP is for an inclusive party for the LGBTQ community,” Moran said.
Counterbalancing Thiel as an openly gay speaker were speeches on the same day from Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, which has a staunchly anti-LGBT reputation.
The day after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) refused during his speech at the convention to endorse Trump, Perkins said he plans to cast a vote for the nominee in November, citing the candidate’s pledge to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
Falwell touted Trump’s pledge to repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
“I truly believe Mr. Trump is America’s blue-collar billionaire,” Falwell said. “He is down to earth, loves America and the American people. He is a true patriot and a champion of the common man. Mr. Trump has added a plank to this party platform to repeal IRS rules sponsored by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 barring churches and non-profits from expressing political free speech.”
On the other hand, Steve Bailey, Superintendent of the North Coast District United Methodist Church, delivered the invocation that night using the term “whom you love” — a term of art often used to indicate gay people.
“We know that it’s not right when lives are destroyed by addiction, when our justice system favors some, and punishes others,” Bailey said. “When children and women are trafficked in our streets. Or when people are denigrated because of who they are or whom they love.”
Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association.