Peter Thiel's presence highlights Republican tension over LGBT voters

Billionaire Peter Thiel's invitation to speak Thursday night is one of several nods to the LGBT community at the Republican National Convention. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel looks over the podium before the start of the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday.

When Peter Thiel takes the stage at the Republican National Convention Thursday night, he is expected to declare that he is proud to be gay – marking a historical first for the party’s convention.

The Silicon Valley billionaire supports gay marriage, putting him at odds with the party’s official platform, and he’ll use his prime-time slot (shortly before Donald Trump is slated to officially accept the party’s nomination) to admonish the GOP for its refusal to support LGBT rights, a source familiar with the planned statements told CNN.

The tension between Mr. Thiel's expected comments and the official Republican platform is indicative of the fine balance the GOP seeks to strike during the convention between projecting inclusivity and keeping a firm commitment to conservative social values.

“The platform is the most anti-LGBT platform the party has put out in its 162-year history. But last night’s convention was the single most pro-LGBT convention in the party’s 162-year history,” Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, the largest gay GOP group, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview on Thursday.

Mr. Angelo says that the numerous positive mentions the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community received Wednesday night – including those from Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz – are “ indicative of the direction the party’s heading.”

Others, however, are more hesitant to read too much into the inclusivity on display at the convention.

Rachel Hoff was the first openly gay Republican to serve on the platform committee earlier this month, but that didn’t result in a more LGBT-friendly platform. Every amendment she proposed for more inclusive language about the LGBT community was shot down, she told Time. In fact, the resulting platform was heralded as a step backward by many gay rights activists.

However, the party platform, which called for a reversal of the US Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage, often marks a more extreme stance than the rest of the party would take. The nods to the LGBT community at the convention appear to be a signal to voters who may be on the fence that the party is bigger and more diverse than the platform, says Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

“If you were to ask someone before this campaign got going what two areas of growth for the party, they might tell you, Latinos and gay and lesbian voters. Certainly it hasn’t worked out too well for the party for Latinos, but Donald Trump for all the various things he has to say about various groups, he’s not hostile to gays and lesbians,” he tells the Monitor.

Though LGBT Americans might not be a significant voting block in and of themselves, they have managed to channel significant amounts of money to candidates and there are many Americans who are sympathetic to their views. Among Republicans, support has risen from 19 percent in 2009 to 33 percent favoring gay marriage, according to a May 2016 Pew Research poll. That poll also shows that support for gay marriage has risen nationally from 37 percent to 55 percent. 

“It’s in the long-term interest of the Republican party to project itself as being tolerant," Professor Boatright says. "If they’re going to be competitive in the future for people in suburban Philadelphia, suburban Chicago, people who might be willing to listen to Republicans on economic issues, they’re going to have to show that they are not captive of the hard social right and that’s one way they can do that.”

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