In the Trump-Pence Era, Who Will Protect Texas’ Gay Cowboys?

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Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a rainbow flag with "LGBT's for TRUMP" written on it at a campaign rally in Colorado, on Oct. 30, 2016.
Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a rainbow flag with "LGBT's for TRUMP" on it at a campaign rally in Colorado, on Oct. 30, 2016.Credit: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

DALLAS – President-elect Donald Trump may have attacked various minority groups over the course of his election campaign, but he rarely spoke about the LGBT community, which is certainly not a favorite among many of his supporters. Trump did say, however, that every state must decide independently whether to allow same-sex marriage.

In his first major, post-victory television interview, on “60 Minutes,” he backtracked a bit and clarified that he was “fine” with same-sex marriage. Now the U.S. gay community is trying to evaluate whether Trump, who does not seem particularly interested in their rights, will protect them from hate crimes or homophobic legislation – or, at the very least, from Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

As governor of Indiana, Pence – a conservative evangelical Christian – supported conversion therapy for gay people (which involves psychological treatment or spiritual counseling designed to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual), and he is a vocal opponent of gay marriage. Previously, he has condemned laws banning discrimination against members of the LGBT community at work, and in 2015 even signed into law a bill allowing companies and private individuals who oppose employing gays to cite freedom of religion as part of their defense, if necessary.

Line Dancing in gay club in Texas

In addition, Pence has called for channeling funding from organizations that aid AIDS patients to conversion therapy, and wrote on his website when he ran for Congress in 2000 that the House should “ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior. “

In New York, conversion therapy may seem like some sort of nightmare from the past, but here in Dallas it is a real threat to members of the LGBT community who grew up in conservative Christian families.

Support for conversion therapy is part of the Republican Party platform in Texas, and the clinic of one of the best-known practitioners of this treatment method is a mere 20-minute drive from the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas – also considered the LGBT Mecca in the city and surrounding area.

At the heart of Oak Lawn is the popular club Round-Up Saloon and Dance Hall, where locals who don’t want to leave the culture of the South only to straights come to boogie. Mounted over the door are the traditional Texas longhorn steer horns, and a large poster for the movie “Brokeback Mountain” welcomes everyone. The regulars dance the traditional Two-Step every night on the large dance floor in the center of the club, and visitors are invited to learn the moves.

Derek Dunaway was sitting on the top floor of the club, looking down at the avenue where the local gay pride parade passes every year, and remembering his friends who underwent conversion therapy – and still bear the scars. They told him of the "therapeutic" summer camps they attended, which are banned in five states in the United States, but not in Texas, and of participants who committed suicide.

Any possible anti-LGBT policy determined in Washington will definitely wield a strong influence in rural areas and in Texas in general, says Dunaway. As vice president, Pence can certainly change a lot of things in practice, he adds: like transferring certain budgets to conversion therapy, especially if the money comes from groups such as family planning organizations.

Dunaway thinks Trump is just not interested in LGBT rights, one way or another, but hopes the president-elect’s ego will stand in Pence’s way in trying to introduce major changes affecting those rights. Trump is so hungry for power that he won’t want to give Pence too much power, the Texan observes.

Along with Pence, who for now is in charge of the incoming administration's transition team, Trump has in recent days appointed a number of other conservative politicians to the team who are known for their abhorrence of the LGBT community. Some are expected to receive senior posts in the administration, and because of Trump’s lack of experience in the public sector, may have great influence over his government's agenda in the next four years.

Among the names of most concern to members of America's LGBT community are Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who has been a major opponent of same-sex marriage, and Ben Carson, who dropped out of the race to be the Republican presidential candidate, and has compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

Danger around the corner

Dallas is actually the friendliest city in Republican Texas for LGBT people, but even in the center of the city's most welcoming quarter many residents feel that danger is lurking just around the corner. Some 30 gay men have been attacked on the streets near the Round-Up over the past year. The locals have a hard time trying to explain this wave of hate crimes.

After the attack on the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the Round-Up put up a sign warning that it is forbidden to bring bags into the club. That sign, along with the four alert security guards at the entrance, are a constant and sad reminder that even in one of the most liberal cities in this state, gay and trans people are afraid of violent attacks.

It is difficult, says Brandon, who is visiting the club, to shift from a president who strongly supports your rights and a country that is slowly moving in a certain positive direction, to a country that is beginning to regress. But then, he adds, everything is all circular; presidents come and go.

Perhaps in an effort to calm things down, Trump has taken a few steps in favor of the country's LGBT community: He mentioned the attack in Orlando at the Republican National Convention, promised to protect the community from those trying to harm them, and recently he appointed billionaire Peter Thiel, who made his fortune from PayPal – and is openly gay – to his transition team.

But Trump’s critics doubt whether he will indeed act to protect gay and trans citizens from hate crimes. He will be more like Ronald Reagan, suggests one of the revellers at the Round-Up – a comparison that does not bode well for LGBT people, because Reagan has gone down in the history books as ignoring the AIDS epidemic while in office, and for not helping the community during one of its most difficult periods.

Gay Republicans, of which there are many at this Dallas club, agree that the new president will probably not protect the rights of the community or advance equality, but they hope that he will at least bring back “law and order” to the streets, as he has promised, and in so doing indirectly help them, too.

One local resident who is worried about the rise in hate crimes in the city is Justin, who was sitting with a group of friends who are planning to move to Florida. He whispers very quietly that he voted for Trump, and jokes that he is generally “in the closet” as to how he voted.

“What, you voted for him too?" asks one of his friends at the same table, and shakes his hand.

Things need to be shaken up, Justin asserts, "and I think Trump will do it. We need someone who is not a politician." At base, Trump is a classic New York Democrat, he adds, and his declarations against same-sex marriage were just part of his election strategy.

The theory according to which Trump was perhaps "pretending" to oppose LGBT rights is popular among Republicans at the Round-Up, as well as for Democrats. "I really believe Trump is a liberal, he was once a friend of Hillary's," Justin says. "He said once that it's just easier to be elected as a Republican, and that’s what he did."

Thomas, who didn’t vote for either candidate, explains that the differences between the two candidates were only cosmetic as far as the LGBT community is concerned: The rhetoric may be different, but nothing will change in reality.

Matt, 41, has little patience for LGBT men who are afraid of the president-elect. Those who oppose him are kids, and there are many LGBT people who don’t come to places that cater to the community, "and they think like me," he says, adding, "Obama was shocking. It’s crazy – give Trump a chance!"