First GOP debates: 17 candidates, one ‘humane’ response on LGBT issues

Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul singled out Houston’s lesbian mayor for criticism, saying she had tried to “invade the church to enforce [her] own opinion on marriage.” Candidate Bobby Jindal said he’d sign an executive order on Day One to ensure that “Christian business owners and individuals don’t face discrimination for having a traditional view of marriage.” And Mike Huckabee suggested that allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military would mean the government would have to pay for their gender change surgery.

In short: There were no surprises on LGBT issues from the 17 Republican presidential hopefuls who took part in one of two debates sponsored and broadcast by Fox News last Thursday (August 6). Only six of the candidates fielded a question that hit upon an LGBT issue. And only one of those six –Ohio Governor John Kasich— answered in a way that suggested a measure of respect for LGBT people.

Kasich said he would love his own child even if she was gay. But his wording walked a delicate line between noble father and tolerant tongue-biter.

“Kasich’s answer was far from perfect—the phrasing ‘if one of my daughters happened to be that’ was unfortunate, and in noting that he would love his daughters ‘no matter what they do,’ he indicated that he thought being lesbian was something that requires forbearance,” wrote June Thomas, editor of’s LGBTQ section. “Nevertheless, his response was loving and humane….”

The mainstream media and the audience in Cleveland reacted favorably to Kasich’s comments, as did Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, the national gay Republican group.

“I was blown away by his response and by the response of the crowd,” said Angelo, who attended the debates in Cleveland at the invitation of the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County.

“I had to watch debate later to hear [Kasich’s] full response on replay because the cheers were so deafening, I couldn’t hear the entirety of his response,” said Angelo. “It was very encouraging.”

But other candidates showed no interest in walking a line between flat out opposition and respect for anything LGBT. At best, some Republican candidates participating in the debates just seemed eager to slide off the topic whenever asked to elaborate on their views against equal rights to LGBT people.

When a Fox News moderator asked former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking state bans on same-sex marriage is “settled law,” Santorum said no and likened his response to that of President Lincoln to the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott.

In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not citizens of the United States and could not sue and that Congress didn’t have authority to prohibit slavery. While Lincoln made clear he thought the Dred Scott decision was “erroneous” and hoped it would be overturned, he urged “respect for the judicial department.”

Santorum did not urge respect for the judicial department.

“This is a rogue Supreme Court decision,” said Santorum. “Just like [Chief] Justice [John] Roberts said, there is no constitutional basis for the Supreme Court’s decision.” But then he spent the rest of his time talking about the Supreme Court’s rulings upholding the right of women to have an abortion.

Fox News panelist Chris Wallace asked former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee how he thinks he can elected president given that some of his positions –such as wanting constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and abortions— are positions opposed by a majority of Americans.

Huckabee completely ignored the question’s reference to same-sex marriage and talked exclusively about his opposition to abortion.

When Fox News panelist Bret Baier asked Huckabee how he would “handle” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent directives “to prepare for a moment” when the military might welcome transgender persons to serve openly, Huckabee did not attempt to answer that question. Instead, he said, “The military is not a social experiment” and “It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make [us] a different country and more diverse.”

“The purpose is to protect America,” said Huckabee. “I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines makes our country safer.”

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal brought up the issue of same-sex marriage himself. When asked during the 5 o’clock debate (for candidates with low polling numbers) what his first executive order would be, if elected president, Jindal said he would “sign an executive order protecting religious liberty, our first amendment rights so Christian business owners and individuals don’t face discrimination for having a traditional view of marriage.”

Santorum then jumped in, echoing that response.

“I will institute an executive order to make sure that people of faith are not being harassed and persecuted by the federal government for standing up for their religious beliefs.”

Both remarks were apparent references to reactions of many opponents of same-sex marriage who have been promoting new state laws attempting to carve out a religious exception to human rights ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky picked up on the religious freedom theme during the 9 p.m. debate (for the 10 candidates with the highest polling numbers). Fox News panelist Megyn Kelly directed a question from a viewer who asked (via Facebook): “What would you do to ensure Christians are not prosecuted for speaking out against gay marriage and will Christians be forced to conduct business that conflicts with their religious beliefs?”

“Look, I don’t want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington,” said Paul. “And if people have an opinion, it’s a religious opinion that’s heartily felt, obviously they should be allowed to practice that, and no government should interfere with that.”

From there, Paul launched into an attack on Houston’s openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, though he did not mention her by name.

“One of the things that really got to me was the thing in Houston, where you had the government, the mayor actually trying to get the sermons of ministers,” said Paul. “When the government tries to invade the church to enforce its own opinion on marriage, that’s when it’s time to resist.”

It was not Parker, but the city’s legal department that subpoenaed the “sermons” of five Houston pastors, while preparing its defense against a lawsuit against the city’s human rights ordinance protecting LGBT people. Parker met with pastors and then directed the legal department to withdraw the subpoenas last fall, saying the subpoenas were “inadvertently” being associated with and escalating a religious freedom debate nationally.

That nuance was almost certainly lost on most of Thursday night’s 24 million viewers –a record for a presidential primary debate.

But nuance was not in play when Kelly asked real estate mogul Donald Trump how he could be considered electable given his sometimes crude remarks about women. She quoted him as calling some “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”

Trump tried to deflect the question by suggesting he had made those remarks about “only Rosie O’Donnell.”

O’Donnell, a lesbian actor and talk show host, has had a public feud with Trump since 2006, when, on The View, O’Donnell mocked Trump’s hair, his bankruptcies, and multiple marriages, and said he was like “a snake oil salesman.” Trump responded, calling O’Donnell “a loser” who is “unattractive inside and out” and saying he was going to “send one of my friends to pick up her girlfriend –and I think it’ll be very easy.”

Kelly stopped Trump cold: “For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.”

“Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks,” continued Kelly. “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”

“I think the big problem this country has,” said Trump, “is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either….”

Kelly asked Ohio Governor John Kasich a question that combined religious freedom and “gay marriage.” She asked: “If you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?” (Kasich has twin teenaged daughters from his second marriage.)

“I’m an old-fashioned person here and I happen to believe in traditional marriage, but I’ve also said the court has ruled and I said we’ll accept it,” said Kasich, who then noted he had just attended the wedding of a gay friend. Kelly tried to press him to answer the question –how would you explain your opposition.

“Just because someone doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean I can’t care about them or can’t love them,” said Kasich. “So, if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I’d accept them because you know what, that’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith (lots of applause). So if she’s like that –This is where I would agree with JEB and I’ve been saying it all along: We need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect and let them share in this great American dream that we have. I’m gonna love my daughters no matter what they do. Because you know what: God gives me unconditional love; I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”

Jimmy LaSalvia, former executive of the now defunct national gay group GOProud, was underwhelmed by Kasich’s remarks.

“Governor Kasich was the only one who got a question about marriage equality because FOX knew that his answer was the most palatable for most Americans because he recognized the reality that civil marriage for gay couples is legal now,” said LaSalvia. “But they also knew that he wouldn’t go so far as to offend their viewers and socially conservative GOP base by endorsing marriage equality.”

“I think the whole thing was a carefully orchestrated and ‘scripted’ program designed to further FOX News Channel executive’s goal of electing a Republican president in 2016,” said LaSalvia. “They carefully chose the questions to ask each of the candidates that would help further that goal.”

Log Cabin’s Angelo said he doesn’t think social issues will be the biggest focus in the 2016 campaign but adds, “They might come into play as voters try to determine which candidate is most like them.”

“I know a lot of folks, including Log Cabin folks, who are now big fans of John Kasich after his performance at the debate,” said Angelo, “where before, it was largely a ‘wait-and-see’. He’s got a lot of new friends.”

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