July 31, 2019 at 8:24 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
‘Don’t Ask’ activist joins gay conservative movement as Trump supporter
Rob Smith is among the gay conservatives who spoke at at Turning Point USA conference. (Photo courtesy of Turning Point USA)

Nine years ago, gay Army veteran Rob Smith chained himself to the White House fence, protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

But last week, Smith stood before hundreds of MAGA hat-wearing Donald Trump supporters in D.C. and lamented more young people weren’t joining the conservative movement. In a speech to the Turning Point USA summit, he hammered the need to re-elect President Trump.

“I don’t like the fact that I lost all my gay friends in New York City when I came out as a conservative,” Smith told the Washington Blade. “I don’t like the fact that I lost the rest of my gay friends when I came out as a Trump supporter. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make me feel good, you know, but I can’t tell these kids not to stand up for what they believe and not practice what I preach.”

Smith isn’t alone. In Trump’s America, he’s among the emerging gay voices in the world of conservative political commentary, whether it be Twitter, YouTube or podcasts.

Want to read the latest from these gay political commentators? Open up the conservative Washington Examiner. Among the columnists is Eddie Scarry, a gay protege of conservative media queen Ann Coulter, and Brad Polumbo, a Zillenial writer who boasts a 4.0 GPA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he joined Young Americans for Liberty.

Smith didn’t shy away from his sexual orientation on stage at the summit, where he said he was gay during his speech and referenced his husband. For the attendees, many of whom wore MAGA hats and frat attire consisting of a sport coat, khakis and top-siders, it didn’t seem to matter.

When Smith was on stage, they lined up to ask questions about being a youth in the conservative movement. Topics included Big Tech’s alleged censorship of conservatives on social media, teacher hostility to conservative viewpoints and whether it’s possible to be in a relationship with someone who has opposing political views. After Smith was done, attendees continued to mob him to snap group selfies and offer words of support and solidarity.

Speaking with the Washington Blade at the summit after his remarks, Smith said his sexual orientation at conservative events has “never really been a thing.”

Any concerns, Smith said, are generally quickly resolved because he says people in the conservative movement “are unafraid to offend you by asking questions.” 

“So sometimes I do get questions,” Smith said. “They’re like, ‘I’m a conservative Christian, but I support you as a gay person, but my beliefs are differently, how do I reconcile those two things?’ And then I would just say, ‘You really lead from love, you lead from the fact that we all have the same fundamental values, like we’re all here for the same reason, we just have a different sexual orientation, different skin colors, different religions, different whatever.’”

Of course, the conservative movement isn’t exactly known for accepting LGBT people. In fact, conservative forces have long opposed LGBT equality — whether it be marriage, assurances of non-discrimination in employment or military service — let alone offered LGBT voices a platform to speak.

The welcoming attitude, Smith said, is a direct consequence of social media, which he said has enabled gay people with conservative viewpoints to become more vocal and visible. And yet, Smith also said he sees a “societal change,” which constitutes a more accepting attitude from Millennials and Gen-Z conservatives toward gay people than older conservatives.

“We ascribe so many things to like, the government needs to change all of this stuff, and this needs to happen,” Smith said. “Change does not start from the top down, it starts from the bottom up.”

Another gay conservative commentator is Guy Benson of Fox News Radio, where he works as a contributor and hosts a daily radio show/podcast. Neither Trump nor Democrats escape the barbs of his commentary, which, Benson told the Blade, demonstrates he’s “not a MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporter by any stretch of the imagination.”

Speaking with the Blade at the Turning Point USA conference after his speech, Benson said there’s a new environment in the conservative movement for gay people.

“I think that it’s a changing society, and I think I recognize that younger conservatives, in particular, have very different views on some of these than older generations,” Benson said.

Benson pointed to data from the Pew Research Center that found growth over time among Republicans who support same-sex marriage. (There has been growth, but still a minority of conservatives support gay nuptials. In 2019, 44 percent of Republicans said they support same-sex marriage compared to 23 percent in 2001.)

“So, there has been a sea change,” Benson said. “And I think there’s a recognition that politics is sort of an addition and multiplication game. It’s a coalitional game. And it’s more about ideas, or at least I hope it’s more about ideas than identity.”

Charlie Kirk, a 25-year-old rising star in the conservative movement and founder of Turning Point USA, said via email to the Blade gay people with conservative ideology are more than welcome in the movement.

“This generation of conservatives is marked by increasingly diverse and charismatic voices like Guy and Rob, who love their country and value timeless conservative ideas like small government, freedom of speech and individual responsibility,” Kirk said. “We celebrate patriots like these regardless of whether they’re gay or straight, black or white, male or female, rich or poor, tall or short. We’re so grateful for their leadership and for inspiring so many others in their own journeys in what has really become an all new conservative movement.”

It should be noted Turning Point USA faces accusations of racism, despite employing black conservatives like Smith and “Blexit” leader Candace Owens, in addition to objections to churning out an army of youth in support of Trump.

To be sure, large swaths of the conservative movement are still vocally opposed to LGBT rights and to promoting LGBT people to positions of visibility within the movement. Just last week, a failed U.S. Senate candidate in California announced a “Straight Pride” event to celebrate “whiteness” and “heterosexuality” as the Family Research Council President Tony Perkins hailed a new State Department commission widely seen as hostile to LGBT rights.

The path for the emergence of these gay conservatives takes different forms. Benson has long been a conservative, but came out as gay in 2015 on a Fox News during an interview with Megyn Kelly. Smith went in the opposite direction, starting as an openly gay progressive who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, then becoming a conservative, then becoming a Trump supporter.

But Smith’s voice as a gay conservative is especially unique because years ago he was not just a progressive, but an activist with the now defunct LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

These days, Smith doesn’t talk much publicly about when not even the Democratic Party was supportive enough of LGBT rights to pass muster for him. On that cold November day in 2010, he was arrested protesting outside the White House where President Barack Obama was in charge.

Giving voice to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal effort as a gay Army veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait, Smith was among 13 activists who in protest of the military’s gay ban chained themselves to the White House fence. For the act of civil disobedience, Smith and others were subsequently arrested.

Joining Smith at the time was former Lt. Dan Choi, who gained notoriety for being the first activist to chain himself to the White House fence in an effort to encourage then-President Obama to end the discharges under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” To Smith’s immediate left was Autumn Sandeen, a San Diego-based transgender activist and Navy veteran, to his immediate right was longtime gay military activist Michael Bedwell.

After Choi became the first activist to chain himself to the White House fence in 2010, Smith penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post saying more activism like Choi’s was needed.

“I think what we needed was to see something like this to light a fire under each and every one of us that cares as deeply as he does about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, and about full equality in general,” Smith wrote. “This movement needs him as much as it needs me, or Jarrod Chlapowski, or Lt. Col Victor Fehrenbach, or any of the other gay veterans who share our past of silent service knowing that it reflects the present of thousands of gay soldiers currently serving.”

Rob Smith is arrested at a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ protest in front of the White House on November 15, 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Although times have changed, Smith said he looks back on his days as an LGBT rights activist with no regrets and said that work helped him reach where he is now.

“When I look back at that now, and when I look back at standing up for LGBT soldiers, and doing all the things that I did at the White House, I look back on it fondly,” Smith said. “And I’m proud of every single thing that I did. And when I look back on that all of that stuff really did inform the change to conservatism that I’ve had over their past few years.”

Smith said the experience of being with GetEQUAL helped him “see how organizations work,” which is why he’s “so critical of a lot of things that are going on in not just in the transgender ideology, [but] very critical about things that are going on in the LGBT movement in general.”

“There was a moment when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal happened and marriage equality happened, there was this whole moment where people didn’t know where we were going to go, because fundamentally, the rights for the gays and lesbians have more or less been achieved,” Smith said. “And those were two really big things, right? And so I think that the embrace of a lot of the nuttiness that that’s going on in the name of the LGBT nowadays is motivated not by a genuine desire to help people, but by a desire to keep that sort of money train coming.”

As an example, Smith took particular issue with the Human Rights Campaign deciding to endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016 — even before the Democratic primary with Bernie Sanders had yet to conclude.

“That wasn’t about the people; it was about Chad Griffin,” Smith said. “That was about the people that were on the boards of these things, trying to put access to power. And what I hate the most, is that they use young LGBT people, and they’re using young LGBT people of color to push these leftist messages out, and they’ll put their faces all over the place, and they’ll send them out to interviews and all that stuff. And these people are still not represented on the boards, they’re still not represented in leadership positions.”

But at least one of his fellow activists from that time doesn’t see it that way, especially when policies like Trump’s transgender military ban are still on the books.

Robin McGehee, who served as co-chair of GetEQUAL and was another of the 13 activists arrested at the White House, criticized Smith for his political transformation from an LGBT activist into a Trump supporter.

“Although I deeply believe in the personal freedom of choosing your political positions and candidates, that does not mean I am not saddened by Smith’s desire to support a person and party that clearly discriminates, promotes classism, sexism, homo/transphobia and operates in a fashion that is demeaning to the liberty and justice for all that Rob helped protect and promote fighting as a solider for our country, on and off the battlefield,” McGehee said.

McGehee took particular issue with Smith supporting an administration that enacted a transgender military ban, which she said is “damaging to the same soldiers he took the fence with who defended his right to serve openly as a gay man.”

“His desire to support a president and an administration that would so clearly discriminate against transgender service members seems self-centered, but for that — disappointingly — he has picked the right candidate and party,” McGehee said.

In terms of rhetoric, there may well be a changing environment that has enabled gay conservatives to emerge under the Trump administration, which despite its anti-LGBT record has embraced some symbols of LGBT rights.

On one hand, Trump recognized Pride month in a Tweet and a global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality in the more than 70 countries where it remains illegal. Per White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trump was the first president to enter into the White House “approving of gay marriage.”

On the other hand, Trump has presided over anti-LGBT administration in terms of policy, mostly in terms of attacks on the transgender community. Among his administration’s initiatives are a transgender military ban and disavowing protections for transgender workers under federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (But the Trump administration also has argued federal civil rights law doesn’t apply to gay people.)

As part of this schizophrenia, there’s a perception the Trump administration has approached gay people and transgender people differently, which is also reflected in the conservative movement. We may be living in a post-gay world, but we’re not living in a post-trans world.

Benson recognized an “addition and multiplication game” within the conservative movement to reach out to gay people, but said that isn’t the case with transgender people.

“That’s a trickier piece at the moment,” Benson said. “I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand transgenderism. I think there’s a lot of people who are just wrapping their brains around same-sex marriage for the first time. And now, they feel like there’s this new frontier that is, you know, aggressive and challenging biological sex and all these sorts of things.”

Despite the inclusive approach of the LGBT movement, many gay conservatives themselves see a distinction between the fight for gay rights and transgender rights. Among them is Smith, who said he sees a distinction between the “L” and the “G” in the LGBT movement and the other letters.

“There’s so much confusion about all the other letters, because they are confused about who they are, what they want, what the goals are, what constitutes this, what constitutes that,” Smith said. “They’re confused. There are a lot of people that are literally making these things up as they go along. So they’re confused. They’re confusing each other. And they’re confusing everybody else.”

Smith said he faces constant accusations he’s transphobic, but denied that was the case and said instead he’s “shamelessly gender critical.”

“I’m shamelessly critical of some of the roads that transgender ideology is going down to when it comes to invasive medical intervention for kids and teenagers, when it comes to silencing the voices of women, of lesbians, silencing lesbian icons like Martina Navratilova,” Smith said, “Or silencing lesbians like Julia Beck, or silencing anybody who dares to stand up against what I like to call super-radical transgender ideology.”

From left: Dan Fotou, GetEqual’s eastern regional field director in 2010; former Army Staff Sgt. Miriam Ben-Shalom; activist Michael Bedwell; Army veteran Rob Smith; former Petty Officer Autumn Sandeen; Fr. Geoff Farrow; former Army Lt. Dan Choi; Marine combat veteran Crpl. Evelyn Thomas; former Marine Corps Sgt. Justin Elzie; former Cadet Mara Boyd; LGBT rights advocate and blogger Scott Wooledge; former Army Arabic linguist Ian Finkenbinder and GetEqual co-founder Robin McGehee are handcuffed to the White House fence on Nov. 15, 2010 in a protest against the United States Military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. The protesters were subsequently arrested. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It’s that kind of thought Smith said informs his opposition to the Equality Act, LGBT rights legislation that would enact long sought-after federal LGBT non-discrimination protections into law. (The White House has said Trump opposes the legislation based on unspecified “poison pill” amendments in the bill.)

Smith said he shares that view on the Equality Act because he wants to ensure women (“not people that identify as a woman or I feel like a woman today — like I think about the actual women”) have access to sex-segregated spaces, like restrooms and lesbian bars. (Transgender advocates would call the exclusion of transgender women from these spaces discrimination.)

“Now there is a form of legislation that I think conservatives and liberals and Democrats can probably come together on, that protects LGBT people and still keeps women with the rights that they have fought so hard for,” Smith said. “But you don’t, I’m not asking them to give up their rights, so that the LGBTQI or whatever can can get whatever rights that they want.”

On the Equality Act, Benson said he wasn’t familiar with the legislation, but said some kind of legislation “to add some just very basic protections that exists for other groups should exist for LGBT people as well.”

At the same time, Benson also said a religious exemption within such legislation would be “very important.”

“I think that we should be able to coexist in a way that people are protected and not discriminated against because of who they are, and then people aren’t trampled on, if they are religious dissenters,” Benson said. “I know that that’s a tricky needle to thread, but that’s one of my goals is fostering the type of culture and the type of country where we can exist side by side.”

If gays and lesbians have largely escaped the wrath of Trump’s rhetoric, other minority groups, such as immigrants and Muslims, aren’t so lucky.

Most recently, that has become evident with Trump’s tweet telling four Democratic congresswomen — who are also people of color — to “go back” to their home countries. At a subsequent rally, Trump supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to one of the four, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who’s a Somalian immigrant, but a U.S. citizen. As backlash ensued, Trump disavowed the chant the next day.

(Over the weekend, Trump rekindled this racist rhetoric when he criticized Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), asserting his congressional district in West Baltimore “is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” When civil rights leader Al Sharpton came to Cummings’ defense, Trump subsequently tweeted Sharpton “hates whites & cops.”)

Smith, however, said those comments “didn’t offend me” because people speaking freely is what the conservative movement is about.

“I feel empowered as a conservative because I don’t have to like run around being offended by every little thing,” Smith said. “I don’t get empowerment by being offended. I don’t get empowerment by being a victim.”

Rob Smith (Photo courtesy of Turning Point USA)

Smith sought to redirect the indignation, pointing out Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), another one of the four congresswomen Trump told to “go home” appeared on stage with Omar Suleiman, a Muslim leader who has expressed views being gay is contrary to his religion.

“Who’s going to call Rashida Tlaib out for sharing the stage with a homophobic imam at a CARE fundraiser?” Smith said. “And this homophobic imam, Omar Suleiman, said that homosexuality is a disease that needs to be cured and compared it to bestiality and incest, right? So, we can’t wait to waive the smelling salts and clutch the pearls and do all of this stuff when Trump says something…Why is nobody calling her out for sharing the stage with a homophobe, right?”

Smith took both the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT media watchdog GLAAD to task for refusing to criticize Tlaib, an American citizen and native of Palestinian descent.

“Where’s HRC?” Smith said. “Like, why are they not doing that? Because they know that they would be attacked for attacking a congresswoman of color. Where is GLAAD calling her out for that? She never should have shared the stage with that person.”

It should be noted Tlaib has supported LGBT rights as a member of Congress. The Michigan Democrat is a co-sponsor of the Equality Act and has supported the transgender community, including by displaying a blue-and-purple transgender flag outside her office.

Benson, however, took a different approach and said that rhetoric from Trump wasn’t appropriate, pointing out he had criticized it on Twitter.

“I was very critical of it from the very beginning,” Benson said. “I think that that’s the type of tweet where, you know, I said to the kids today, I feel like we don’t have to defend every single thing the president says or does or tweets, just because he’s the leader of the party and the team that you have identified with.”

Benson expressed particular concern with the “send her back” chant at the Trump rally.

“I have all sorts of problems with Ilhan Omar, and I write and talk about them all the time,” Benson said. “And she’s a U.S. citizen, so ‘send her back’ has this sort of nativist ugly — It’s not even an undertone, right? It’s just out there, and I think that’s really bad.”

Asked whether he felt any special concern over the remarks as a gay man in sense of a solidarity with other minority groups, Benson said, “I didn’t think of it that way. It gave me pause as an American.”

“It did not occur to me like, ‘Oh, I’m relating to her because I’m a member of a minority group,’” Benson said. “It was just like, as someone who believes in this country as an idea, and what we should be about. It was offensive. Just straight up on its — on its own merits, not like in any sort of other context for me.”

It seems gay conservatives writ-large aren’t as concerned with Trump’s racist tweets as they are pleased with his policies and attempts at LGBT outreach.

Charles Moran, a spokesperson for Log Cabin Republicans, talked about Trump’s HIV and global LGBT initiative when asked whether his organization would denounce his “go back” tweets.

“President Trump’s leadership to end the spread of HIV/AIDS in 10 years as well as the initiative to end the criminalization of homosexuality internationally is a strong signal of commitment to the LGBTQ community,” Moran said. “Coupled with a roaring economy and a focus on improving the lives of the average American worker, I think it’s safe to say that gay conservatives and Log Cabin Republican members are still quite pleased with their support of President Trump and are unwavering in their support.”

With the left having a reputation for shunning those who disagree with their political views, especially dissenters who are members of minority groups, can these gay conservatives find romance? They say they’re making it work.

Benson, who’s engaged to marry his boyfriend later this year, denied having any sort of tension with his soon-to-be spouse over politics.

“He’s not terribly political, so I’d say he’s right-leaning,” Benson said. “His parents are definitely Republicans, but he doesn’t really care that much about politics. Like when we get home, he’s not eager to watch the Mueller testimony, he’s eager to watch HGTV. That’s the kind of vibe that we got going on.”

Smith, who mentioned on stage at the Turning Point USA summit his spouse doesn’t share his views, said his husband “loves me, he doesn’t love a political ideology.”

“He doesn’t love Rob Smith with fucking 125,000 followers on social media,” Smith said. “He loves me, and we connect to our love for each other, and politics is not a huge thing in our relationship. I don’t even talk about politics that much at home because this is what I do. It’s what I talk about all day.”

But will these new gay conservative voices have any effect on the LGBT electorate in 2020? In years past, exit polls have shown LGBT people comprise a sizable chunk of around 5 percent of the electorate and have overwhelmingly supported Democrats. (In 2016, LGBT voters opposed Trump in support of Hillary Clinton by a whopping margin of 78 to 14 to percent.)

Based on voting trends — as well as criticism of Trump within the LGBT community — Benson wasn’t terribly optimistic about newfound gay support for conservatives in the 2020 election, saying he imagines Trump will “not get a huge percentage of the LGBT vote.”

“I think that some of the objections are legitimate,” Benson said. “[But] I think there are actual signs of progress that the president himself and some of the top people in his administration have spearheaded that have gotten scant attention or are sort of sneered at as unimportant.” 

Benson counted among these signs the standing ovation Peter Thiel received after saying he’s gay on stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention and Trump’s appointment of Richard Grenell as an openly gay U.S. ambassador to Germany, which Benson called “an extremely important position.” 

“I think it’s quite good that the ambassador has been tasked with a U.S.-led initiative to combat the criminalization of homosexuality around the world,” Benson added. “I think that’s leadership.”

Smith said he’s going to talk “as much as I can” about newfound conservative values and why President Trump should win re-election in 2020.

“By the way, I think that America is the freest and safest nation for gays and lesbians, and I believe that wholeheartedly,” Smith said. “And I’m going to go out to the rallies, and I’m going do the work with Turning Point USA, and I’m going to keep running my mouth on social media.”

Smith also warned against underestimating the power of gay conservatives or their presence in the LGBT voting bloc.

“There’s not a lot of us,” Smith said. “There’s maybe like 5, 6, 7 that have this national platform right now. What I’ve seen, and what a lot of these people will tell you, is that there are more of us than you think, and when I look at my DMs and my tweets, and what I see when I post an Instagram video, there’s so many of us out there.”

Rob Smith (Photo courtesy of Turning Point USA)

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. Follow Chris

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