CLEVELAND ― Peter Thiel on Thursday became the first openly gay Republican convention speaker in history to talk about his sexual orientation, and said he disagreed with portions of his party’s platform that restrict rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American,” said the Silicon Valley billionaire, who co-founded PayPal.
“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 added, referring to conservatives’ push to block transgender individuals from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. “This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
Three gay members of the California delegation went to the front row of their section, directly in front of the stage, to watch Thiel’s speech ― a gesture of both solidarity and advocacy.
Most of Thiel’s remarks focused on non-LGBT issues, primarily national security and the economy. But his pro-equality message ― even with its very light criticism of GOP policies ― was still notable at this convention. After all, this week, the Republican Party adopted one of its most anti-LGBT platforms in history.
It advocates going back to legally defining marriage as between one man and one woman. It supports adoption agencies that refuse to serve same-sex couples; affirms so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice of trying to turn gay people into straight people; calls for banning transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity and endorses controversial legislation that would allow taxpayer-funded discrimination against same-sex married couples in the name of religious freedom.
“I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform,” Thiel said. “But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.”
There are indications that many rank-and-file voters agree with Thiel. The vast majority of convention-goers who spoke to The Huffington Post this week either said they wished the anti-LGBT language wasn’t in the platform or that it was a non-issue to them.
Even many who said they support traditional marriage were confused about why their party continues to focus on it when there are more pressing problems. Thiel also urged his party to focus more on areas like national security.
Rachel Hoff, a D.C. delegate and the first openly gay member of the platform committee, said she thought Thiel’s speech was great.
“In a year like this, when LGBT issues are at the forefront of society ― and in particular here in our party ― it’s significant even that he was given the opportunity to speak, and it’s especially significant that he talked directly about being gay. I think the response from the floor was incredibly encouraging,” Hoff said. “He did address the platform directly, and I think he’s a good representation of the fact that our platform doesn’t represent all Republicans.”
A new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that only 37 percent of Republican respondents would like to see a president who opposes gay marriage. Forty-four percent don’t care, and 13 percent would actually prefer to see their party’s stance on the issue shift.
Thiel is not the first openly gay speaker at a GOP convention. The first came in 1996. The second and most memorable came in 2000, when then-Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) took the stage. Though Kolbe spoke only of trade policy, his homosexuality created a stir in the room. Members of the Texas delegation bowed their heads in prayer as he took the podium. It was an ugly affair.
Thiel received no similar treatment. His line about being a proudly gay Republican received unremarkable though clearly supportive applause ― the biggest coming from his own California delegation. Even the Texans sitting in the back seemed to find nothing objectionable about the historic moment.
“To me, there is no issue. This is an open tent party, and we welcome everyone to come into the Republican Party,” said Ken Cope, a national delegate from Texas.
“I’m a Christian and I don’t condone homosexuality,” said Denise McNamara, also of Texas. “But everyone is a sinner. So I don’t think we can condemn people because all of us are sinners. You have to hate the sin and love the sinner.”
Trump himself opposes marriage equality. He initially came out in favor of allowing transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity rather than the gender assigned to them at birth, but he has since said he supports North Carolina’s law barring them from doing so.
This post has been updated with reaction to Thiel’s speech.