Vincent Natale, a 29-year-old from Washington, was a registered Democrat who cried with joy when President Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
He even threw a party to celebrate, elated in part because he was sure Obama would help fight for his rights as a gay man. Natale believed Romney was “not LGBT friendly,” citing the candidate’s opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions. He couldn’t imagine voting for a Republican.
But this time around, he’ll be voting for Donald Trump.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2015 to legalize gay marriage, the gay rights movement has been at a crossroads, says New York University professor Frances Kunreuther. A scholar of the LGBT movement, she says the movement has failed to coalesce around one issue in a world where marriage equality is now the law of the land.
“There may be a portion of the LGBT community that does not experience racism, sexism, discrimination, transphobia or immigration issues, and they may not feel the need to go to the polls for LGBT rights,” Kunreuther said. “They feel like their rights have been won.”
The GOP captured 31 percent of self-identified gay and lesbian voters in the 2010 midterm elections, compared with 24 percent in the 2006 midterms. In presidential elections, 22 percent of gay voters went Republican in 2012 compared with 19 percent in 2008.
But Trump’s candidacy may not move the needle. An NBC News poll in September found that 72 percent of LGBT voters support Clinton, and just 20 percent support Trump.
The national gay conservative PAC Log Cabin Republicans decided against endorsing Trump recently. In a press release, they commended his “unprecedented overtures to the LGBTQ community” and declared him “perhaps the most pro-LGBT presidential nominee in the history of the Republican Party,” but said their concerns about his other positions prevented them from endorsing him.
Compared with Trump’s uninhibited comments on groups like Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees and women, he rarely mentions gay people, and has spoken out against anti-transgender bathroom laws, breaking rank with fellow Republicans.
Nevertheless, gay supporters contend that he marks a positive — albeit small — transition for the Republican Party on gay rights, and that gay voters may no longer need the Democrats to protect them.
“The fight’s over,” says Dale Hutchinson-Scroggins, 24, a recently married gay man from Richmond, Virginia.
But the party platform remains — according Gregory T. Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans — the most anti-gay in the party’s 162-year history. “Opposition to marriage equality, nonsense about bathrooms, an endorsement of the debunked psychological practice of ‘pray the gay away’ — it’s all in there,” wrote Angelo. “This isn’t my GOP.”
But Trump’s gay supporters’ frustration with the party platform does not sway them.
“Knowing the candidate at the top of the ticket reminded me that it doesn’t actually matter because Trump has thrown the platform out the window,” Hutchinson-Scroggins says.
He says, realistically, reversing the legalization of same-sex marriage is impossible — “like reversing women’s suffrage” — and that other issues matter more.
“If it’s safety or my marriage, I choose safety,” Hutchinson-Scroggins says. “I don’t feel safe with a huge sum of refugees that kill gays as part of their culture coming into this country.”
He cited the Pulse nightclub attack in July as one example of “Islamic terror” targeting his community, and said Trump’s proposed policy banning Muslims from entering the US was comforting.
Angelo, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, says his group was “the only LGBT advocacy organization to call the Orlando attack for what it was: an act of radical Islamic terrorism by an individual who was indoctrinated by the Sharia teachings of an imam who called gay people ‘devil worshippers.’”
Trump has attempted to stoke LGBT support by alluding to terrorist attacks. In June, he tweeted, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
But many gay advocates contend it is too soon to declare the fight for gay rights complete, and Democrats are more likely to help win the long-term battle.
“A gay person has a federal constitutional right to get married, but in 28 of the 50 states, no federal or state law prohibits their employer from firing them because of their sexuality,” says John Lewis, former legal and policy director for now-defunct advocacy group Marriage Equality USA.
Brian Silva, that group’s former executive director, says more mainstream progressive issues that disproportionately impact the LGBT community, like homelessness, also matter. A 2012 report from the UCLA School of Law finds that LGBT youth make up 40 percent of all young people experiencing homelessness, though they are just 7 percent of the total youth population.
But discrimination and homelessness have not gained national momentum in the same way as the marriage issue, which could be part of why gay voters may feel less compelled to vote based on their sexuality.
“The dream of marrying the person you love and living happily ever after is something many Americans can relate to,” Lewis says. “We all want to live in a world where people are not discriminated against, but it doesn’t touch quite that same deeply personal, emotional nerve in a positive way. It’s more about having to relate to somebody’s difficulty.”