After years of unprecedented support for LGBT rights under President Barack Obama, gay activists are unnerved at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. Should they be?
Well before Donald J. Trump was hiring an apprentice on his NBC show of the same name, he was an “apprentice” himself – to one of the most feared lawyers in America. Roy Cohn was gay but he did not share the modern-day liberal values of the gay movement.
Cohn was famously fictionalized by Tony Kushner in “Angels in America”, as a self-loathing, power-hungry hypocrite who is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he lies dying of AIDS.
“I hear Roy in the things [Trump] says quite clearly,” said Peter Fraser, Cohn’s lover for the last two years of his life. “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.”
Cohn was born February 20, 1927, in New York City, and grew up in Manhattan. His father, Albert, was a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. At 21, he was hired by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, after graduating from Columbia Law School at twenty.
In 1951, Cohn’s interrogation of a witness at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sent the couple to the electric chair. Two years later, Cohn became chief legal counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis) during the torrid days of communist-hunting that bore the Senator’s name.
After McCarthy was condemned and Cohn faced charges, he left politics and started his private practice in Manhattan. It’s there he met a young Donald J. Trump and began molding his protege into a real-estate mogul. In the heady 70’s Cohn and Trump were inseparable as friends – Cohn introduced Trump to New York’s elite. They plotted together, celebrated birthdays together and spent nights partying together at the famed Studio 54. The relationship was close and complicated.
Cohn’s sexual identity was a closely guarded secret but Trump was one of the handful of people who knew Cohn was gay. When Trump married Ivana, it was Cohn who insisted on the pre-nup. The Trumps frequently hosted Cohn and Fraser at Trump Towers.
In 1986, Cohn was disbarred for “unethical,” “unprofessional” and “particularly reprehensible” conduct. He died of AIDS in August of that year, though until his end, he insisted it was liver cancer. Trump summed up his former friend in one word, “loyalty”.
Their friendship conveys Trump has no personal prejudice against gays. In the tradition of his mentor, he has never believed LGBT rights deserves public utterance or broad protections – except for basic anti-discrimination legislation. Those openly gay and lesbian men and women who’ve worked with Trump, describe a man who shows no hostility to LGBT staffers
“First of all, I live in New York. I know many, many gay people. Tremendous people. And to be honest with you, as far as civil unions are concerned, I haven’t totally formed my opinion. But there can be no discrimination against gays,” Trump said in 2011.
The president-elect’s personal principles however, haven’t stopped him from hiring operatives who’ve grown up in the anti-gay movement and there are no out gay or lesbian members of his cabinet.
Communications czar, Kelly-anne Conway, found her national profile as a spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage – an anti-gay marriage lobby group. Trump’s Chief Strategist, Stephen Bannon urged his writers to take anti-gay stances when he presided over Breitbart News. He even allowed them to use terms like “faggot” in a derogatory way. Trump’s VP, Mike Pence’s anti-gay positions during his term as Indiana Governor is the stuff of legend. Trump’s attorney-general appointee, Senator Jeff Sessions, is opposed to the expansion of hate crimes to include LGBT victims. Then there’s, Dr Ben Carson, who once said: “a lot of people … go into prison straight, and when they come out they’re gay”.
Alarmingly, as the President-elect ushers in a new administration, there are those who hope his new cabinet will launch a cleansing of some US departments which have turned gay rights into a policy of foreign activism.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a Trump supporter, said recently, “the incoming administration needs to make clear that these liberal policies will be reversed and the ‘activists’ within the State Department promoting them will be ferreted out and will be replaced by conservatives who will ensure the State Department focuses on true international human rights like religious liberty which is under unprecedented assault.”
Not everyone in Trump’s circle is openly hostile to gay rights. Founders Fund chief and PayPal founder, Peter Thiel, was a key contributor to the campaign and also received a highly coveted speaker position during the GOP National Convention. The first time in 16 years a gay person was given such a platform.
“When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom,” Thiel told the Convention in Cleveland. “This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
Trump himself dismissed his personal views on the topic as irrelevant during an interview with 60 Minutes. He told Lesley Stahl, he did not support reversing the historic Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage. “It’s done,” he said. “These cases have gone to the Supreme Court. They’ve been settled. And I’m — I’m fine with that,” he said.
Despite filling his cabinet with socially conservative appointees, gay rights have been one notable exception to Trump’s “go back to the old days” strategy. In fact, the President-elect had done what no Republican president has ever done. A week before the election, Trump held up a rainbow flag with the words “LGBT for Trump” written on it to a cheering crowd of thousands in Colorado. No other Republican Presidential nominee in history has embraced the LGBT community in that way.
Trump is not the first Republican President to privately support gay rights. Ronald Reagan, who is broadly criticized for his failed handling of the AIDS crisis, was privately non-judgmental of homosexuality.
In 2003, Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, wrote in a Time magazine her father explained homosexuality to her while watching a Rock Hudson movie on TV in the 60’s. He told her, certain men, like Rock, were more interested in kissing men than women. Davis recalls the exchange in a completely positive, non-judgmental way. Like the Trumps, the Reagans had close gay friends throughout their lives, including their years in Washington.
One has to wonder, did the years with Cohn soften Trump’s stance or did political expediency suggest LGBT rights were not a battle worth picking in a year where every vote counted? Maybe both. Relative to the extraordinary advances under President Obama, Trump’s positions are prosaic at best, but he could be the most pro-LGBT Republican presidents in recent history.